RUSSELL, Pa. – Citing a staffing issue, the Warren County School District Board of Directors voted 6-3 to transition to an all-remote learning model for at least a month and a half, beginning Wednesday, Dec. 9, at its regular meeting Monday.
School will be remote through Monday, Jan. 25, with students currently scheduled to come back to the classroom Tuesday, Jan. 26, which is the start of the third grading period.
Students will return to their classrooms Tuesday, Dec. 8, to collect belongings and electronic equipment necessary for remote learning. They will begin full remote learning Wednesday, Dec. 9.
Warren County Career Center Students, special education students, and students without internet access at home – over 20 percent of the district – will still be able to come into the school building – although not all of it will be for in-person instruction. WCCC and internet students will be able to return to school Monday, Dec. 14.
WCSD Superintendent Amy Stewart made the recommendation to the board based on the rapid case increase and the amount of time staff who came in close contact had to miss due to quarantine.
“We said we’d know when it’s time,” Stewart said. “It is time to take a break. At this point, with the number of employees that we have out, we can’t continue to go further right now.
“We’ve said all along that it would only be a matter of time until we are in a position here where we could no longer function, and we predicted months ago that this day, where we are today, would be coming and that it would be not due to kids getting sick and dropping. It’s going to be a matter of not having enough staff in our schools because of the impact COVID is having on our community.”
Stewart said the amount of time staff is missing due to quarantine is bearing out to be closer to 28 days than 14 days.
“If we have an employee whose family member, let’s say their spouse, gets sick at work, that spouse is out for anywhere from 10 to 14 days, on average,” Stewart said. “Then the employee that I speak about is out for another 14 days, at least. So when we have an employee out due to a direct contact, a close contact, with a case that they live with, they very well are out for a month. So when we say people are out it’s not a normal absence pattern.”
The staffing issue is the biggest reason the school district needs to go remote, according to school board member Mary Passinger, who voted against the measure not because she believes the district should be in session but because she doesn’t believe anyone should be in the school.
“For the kids, (school) might be the best place to be,” Passinger said. “Staffing is an issue. We can’t staff it. The teachers are getting sick and getting exposed and quarantining and substitute teachers aren’t coming in because they don’t want to be exposed. We had one sub who turned down 30 requests recently.”
Passinger said the school board knew getting substitute teachers could be an issue and even raised the substitute rate before the school year.
“We raised the money for the subs at the beginning of the year,” Passinger said. “But with the numbers the way they are, people would be silly to take the chance. Because we don’t have subs, teachers are covering for other teachers and we are combining classes. Dr. Fauci (the Director of The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said last week that keeping schools open and returning kids to the classroom should be the goal), I love him and I believe everything he says. But if you aren’t involved in the day-to-day, you don’t understand what is going on.”
School Board member Joe Colosimo, who also voted against the measure because he didn’t believe it went far enough, cited the rising COVID-19 numbers in Warren County for his reason to want to shut down the school completely.
Saying he has had conversations with “between 80 and 100 people within the community,” Colosimo, who admitted that he was a non-believer in COVID-19 at one point, pushed for a more stringent closure.
“I think, in my opinion, we should shut down anything and everything that we possibly can legally, but still provide the 180 days or the hours that we need to have for students,” Colosimo said. “Since Nov. 25, we’ve had 299 cases of COVID in Warren County, and three deaths, which is concerning to me. And I was a, I’ll just call it as it is, I was a non-believer. We had one death in Warren County. We had eight cases in July. It’s not going to get here. Well, it’s here, and my recommendation is in full support of closing. But I want to maximize absolutely everything that we could close down until the end of the marking period.”
Warren County saw an increase of 242 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (193 to 435) from Nov. 25 to Dec. 6, and an increase of 279 total cases (219 to 498), including probable cases (yourdailylocal.com is only reporting confirmed cases at this point because the Pennsylvania Department of Health, in an e-mail to the site last week, said it can’t track whether a probable case has become a confirmed case thus meaning a case may be double-counted if probable and confirmed cases are added together).
Passinger agreed that the closure should be complete.
“I voted against this particular motion because I want the district to shut down completely,” Passinger said. “I don’t want special ed kids going in and kids without internet and the Career Center (in school). We are looking at more than 1,000 kids going to school. Nobody should be being put into a position where they are taking a risk.
“I understand we are caught between a rock and a hard palace. The state demands we have to deliver education to everyone. That becomes more difficult when 20 percent doesn’t have internet of any kind.”
According to Stewart, approximately 21 percent of the district’s students have a documented lack of internet. Those students will be permitted back in their school building to gain internet access for remote learning. Warren County Career Center students will also be permitted to attend in-person classes, as will students with full-time special education needs.
Transportation will be provided for those students who need to attend in-person, however, they will not be able to resume in-person learning until Monday, Dec. 14 to allow time to set the logistics.
“We will be running busses to bring in the students who need to come in,” Stewart said. “But we won’t have the Career Center (and) the internet students be able to come in until Monday to give us time to get all those new bus routes and everything established.”
Though permitted to come to school, those students are not required to do so.
“The same options that have been online options that have been available to students since the beginning of the school year are certainly still available,” WCSD Solicitor Chris Byham said. “This is not a mandate, it’s just preserving the option for those parents that would like to pursue it.”
Passinger said while students without internet access will be in the building they won’t be receiving one-on-one instruction.
“They will not be in a classroom with one-on-one instruction,” Passinger said. “They are there simply to take advantage of the WIFI because they can’t get it at home.”
Passinger said she isn’t sure of the details of how the students coming into the school to access the internet will be supervised.
“I am assuming staff members will be there to supervise,” Passinger, a former teacher in the district said. “I don’t know how that will be set up. They may ask for volunteers (from teachers). Recently, we have had a couple of classes where kids were withdrawn and moved to Level 3 (- home school doing virtual learning) where teachers have gone from full class loads to having one class for the full day. Also, because we are doing virtual learning, we can probably consolidate a little more and move teachers around. We also have teachers who are taking leave because of medical concerns but they can do virtual (teaching). I am really not sure how it will look. We didn’t talk about that tonight, but there will be supervision.”
Passinger acknowledged the concerns of those parents who can’t leave young children home alone but are also unable to stay home with them.
“I know that is a huge concern to Amy and Central Office,” Passinger said. “It is one of the things we talked about. I’m not sure what we can do. We can’t have them in school without the staff, we just can’t. I don’t know what the answer is. I know it is a concern, but there are not a lot of options out there for us. I know that has been a concern when school started and last spring when they closed down the schools and people were going nuts when trying to figure out what to do with their kids. It’s not like we have a lot of choices either. We’re very concerned, but there’s only so much we can do.”
The motion passed 6-3, with board members Kevin Lindvay, Paul Mangione, Marcy Morgan, Art Stewart, Donna Zariczny, and Jeff Labesky voting in favor and Colosimo, Passinger, and Elizabeth Huffman voting against.
The motion the board passed reads:
“Pursuant to the District’s Flexible Instruction Resolution and due to COVID-19, the Board authorizes the administration to implement a remote learning model beginning on December 9th through the end of the second marking period and with the understanding that only WCCC students, students with full-time special education program needs, and students with a documented lack of internet may still be permitted to do their remote learning at school and/or receive in-person instruction in a school building so long as the Commonwealth’s Attestation Order and the District’s associated Attestation Ensuring Implementation of Mitigation Efforts do not mandate that the school implement a complete closure to in-person instruction.”
The next board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 11.
Editor’s Note: Chris Rossetti contributed to this story