More area schools move to virtual instruction | News

Three more Indiana County school districts are dialing back their in-person classroom teaching to full-time at-home online education, and another is poised to join the growing number of districts retreating from gathering classes during a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Indiana Area, Purchase Line and Homer-Center school districts decided Thursday to move all classes online through Dec. 4.

IASD Superintendent Michael Vuckovich told parents Thursday afternoon that classroom education will go on hiatus for two weeks following classes today. The switch to virtual learning takes effect Monday and will extend through the week after Thanksgiving break.

As they did during the spring school lockdown, the schools would serve pick-up lunches for all students while the buildings are closed

Plans call for students at all four elementary schools to return in person and for secondary students to revert to their part-time classroom learning on Dec. 7.

Indiana Area School District’s senior high, middle school and three remaining elementary schools will join East Pike Elementary School in a full closing of the buildings and conversion to online education.

Vuckovich on Thursday ordered online learning for all the schools beginning Monday and a return to in-person classes on Dec. 7. All extracurricular and sports events are suspended during the closing.

That amounts to an extension of online classes for students in kindergarten through third grade at East Pike, where a rising number of COVID-19 cases had triggered a closing from Nov. 14 to 30.

While six days of instruction are affected, Vuckovich said, the combination of weekends and holidays creates a 16-day closing that the district hopes will mitigate the spread of the virus and allow those with the infection to recover.

Horace Mann, Dwight Eisenhower and Ben Franklin elementary schools and the secondary schools were to hold in-person classes as scheduled for today.

“Simply stated, this week has been incredibly difficult for all of us, and it has severely impacted our ability to remain open,” Vuckovich wrote in an announcement emailed to parents and posted on the district website. “I do not take this decision lightly and apologize in advance for the inconvenience this decision may cause.

“We currently have 20 active cases in the district and 12 positive/probable cases this week alone.”

The district will send assignments and instructions home with students today. Families and students can request technical assistance through the district website during the online learning period. The district will serve a five-day supply of lunches for students from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday and Dec. 2 at the senior high school; parents must place reservations before 3 p.m. Monday and the morning of Nov. 30 on the district website before pickup.

The Purchase Line school board voted Thursday night to go to full remote learning for all students beginning Monday, through Dec. 4, with a plan to return to the current hybrid learning model on Dec. 7.

Board members speaking on the issue were sure to emphasize that this is not an outcome that anyone in the district wants but, with infections on sharply rising in the county, it’s the safest option.

“Before I make my motion … I want to say that there is not a member of this board that does not want the students to be in full time and back to normal,” said board member Sandra Fyock. “But we have to deal with the information that we have.”

Board member Raymond Kauffman also brought up the fact that, while not anyone’s desired option, going to remote learning on their own terms helps to avoid the possibility of a forced shut down by the Pennsylvania Board of Education.

“Nobody wants to do this,” he said. “My hope is that doing this will prevent PDE from coming in and shutting us down at some point. … This is kind of a way that we can control the timeframe right now without getting to the point where they come in and dictate exactly what we do.”

Superintendent Shawn Ford said students will only miss six days of in-school instruction out of 17 total days because Thanksgiving break is scheduled over that period.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the motion, with board members Scott Gearhart and Michael Moyer expressing their reluctance.

Several residents, during the public comment period, expressed concerns about returning to fully remote learning.

Cassandra Casper, who has a second-grader in the district, spoke about the difficulty she has balancing her work hours with helping her child with school work.

“I’m just not at all happy with how things are going and if school closes, how I’m supposed to get all this stuff done?”

She also expressed her disappointment with the programs that are being presented, saying she has needed to buy her own books and extra materials to give her child the education needed to finish projects.

Lee Smith said that, overall, the board has done a good job of keeping the interest of kids in mind, but she said information should be used over fear.

She also discussed current numbers around the area provided by the department of health dashboard.

“We have minimal cases. We are not overwhelmed. I understand that people are very fearful, but we’re not Indiana. We need to keep that in mind. We’re a rural area with limited resources.”

Smith added that, in addition to education, students are being robbed of other resources that are provided to them at school such as counselors and the school nurse.

Currently, Ford said, the elementary school has two confirmed cases in students, three additional students awaiting results and one more going for testing.

At the high school there is one student case confirmed, one teacher case confirmed, one student waiting for results, one teacher waiting for results and about 45 in quarantine.

“We have been calling around and looking at the data,” Ford said. “We take this very seriously. Our goal, as a board, has been to be in school and we’re still committed to that. … Indiana County has been in substantial (level of community spread) for three weeks now, and it appears that they’re heading for a fourth week.”

Ford also said many other area schools are making the decision to go remote in light of the recent upswing in cases in the county.

Students at the Indiana County Technology Center will follow the same schedule, Ford said.

In addition to remote learning, a motion was unanimously passed to modify the athletic health and safety plan, moving the start of athletics practices to Dec. 7, with competition to begin on Jan. 7 in compliance with PIAA.

“No one wants closure. I hope these days and this action, taken in an abundance of caution … are going to allow us to return to school and operate through the next scheduled break at Christmas,” Ford said. “The goal of this is to get back in school and remain there until next break. I thank the community and the board for being here tonight as we are tasked with very difficult decisions.”

The district will shift to remote learning for all students through early December because of the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in Indiana County.

The change takes effect this weekend with the immediate delay of winter sports programs in conjunction with the conversion to at-home learning for the students.

At the recommendation of District Superintendent Curt Whitesel, the school board canceled student classes for Monday and Tuesday, making Monday an Act 80 in-service day for teachers and Tuesday a vacation day for the district.

When classes recess this afternoon and after the Thanksgiving break, students will log on for virtual instruction from Dec. 1 to 4.

The board empowered Whitesel to extend the online instruction through Dec. 11 if warranted.

Within the district, one active case of infection is confirmed in a supplemental employee-coach, according to the district website. People who had close contact with the patient and the parents of student-athletes have been notified.

Some of the teachers can conduct classes from their classrooms in the schools, but many others — including those who are under quarantine due to the pandemic — will instruct homebound students from their own homes. Staffing assignments will be set by the administration, the school board ordered Thursday. District officials said special education teachers would personally assess their students’ needs for best online instruction.

Whitesel had cautioned district parents on Nov. 9 of the possibility of the closing so that families would have time to arrange needed child supervision. Announcing the potential for a longer closing also was meant to help families to prepare.

High School Principal Jody Rainey said 91 students honored the superintendent’s invitation earlier this month to opt out of in-person classes in the school and voluntarily take synchronous online classes as a way to help stop the spread of the virus. Rainey said the concurrent cancellations of in-person learning and athletic programs at other school districts in the Heritage Conference will delay the start of competition to Dec. 22 at the earliest, and create no competitive disadvantage for the schools making the same adjustments.

Earlier, the United School District, Marion Center Area Senior High School and Saltsburg Elementary School moved to all distance learning in the wake of the closing of East Pike Elementary School in Indiana through Nov. 30.

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