Sep. 25—Almost one month into the school year, Mercer County schools continue to provide in-person instruction, in spite of COVID case increases creeping toward the pandemic's peak in December and January.
Officials from Sharon, Hermitage and West Middlesex school districts discussed how the pandemic has affected classes this school year.
This is the first in a survey of public schools' responses to continuing challenges from COVID-19.
Even though Sharon City School District interim Superintendent William Gathers isn't new to school administration — he retired two years ago as Mercer School District's superintendent — overseeing a school district during a pandemic is something new.
"We're just kind of muddling through it like everyone else," Gathers said. "To the extent we're looking at closing buildings — not yet, but any given day you could have that."
He said the district has had cases in every building — Middle High School, Case Avenue Elementary, West Hill Elementary and C.M. Musser Elementary. With new cases popping up in each building, students with positive tests and those who have come in contact with them are being quarantined.
Older students continue their classes by using their Chromebooks to work virtually on Google classroom.
He said a couple of people have complained about the mask mandate, but everyone has complied with the state order.
"We've had people who left and went to our cyber academy as a result," Gathers said. "No one likes it, but it's simply the world we live in right now."
He said the district has to find the best solutions to provide students with the best education possible in spite of the circumstances.
"That's our job and what we'll strive to do," Gathers said. "The board, kids, administrators, and teachers all have been good about it."
Hermitage schools have maintained in-person instruction since beginning classes Aug. 31, said Superintendent Dr. Dan Bell.
Last year, the state departments of Education and Health required schools to close for a few days if it reported excessive COVID cases in a rolling 14-day period. This year schools can remain open unless at least five percent of a building's student population tests positive for COVID-19 within that two-week period.
Under last year's recommendations a school building could be closed after about four cases, Bell said the district's average building's student size is about 700 students, meaning it would take about 35 cases to close a school.
Other changes have come this year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adjusted "close contact" distance from 6 feet to 3 feet this year. This year's guidance cuts the average number of quarantined students in half, Bell said.
Students can be quarantined for up to 10 days, or as few as seven if they test negative for COVID-19.
"There seems to be more focus this year from the Department of Health and the state on keeping the buildings open," Bell said.
Bell said there did seem to be more COVID cases in the district than at this time last year, but quarantined students can follow assignments online through Google Classroom, and some teachers have posted more videos for students to utilize.
"Last year, we were fortunate that K through seven didn't miss a day last year, and the high school only had two days of online instruction, so the students are used to being in the classroom," Bell said.
West Middlesex Area School District keeps parents update through a district dashboard that tracks the number of COVID cases.
Since the beginning of the school year, there have been 37 cases — 23 resolved cases and 14 active cases as of Friday afternoon.
Superintendent Raymond Omer said the district has more COVID-19 cases this year compared to this point last school year. But the district had applied more distancing in the elementary schools and a hybrid online-in person model at the high school.
With the district's parents favoring in-person instruction and the easing of certain restrictions this year, Omer said the district's entire student body has spent this school year in the classroom.
"You really can't compare the two different school years because we were on two different models," Omer said.
The school district takes a layered approach to detecting possible COVID-19 cases, with the most important step beginning at home. When parents see COVID symptoms in their children, the district encourages them to call the school nurse for guidance and keep their child quarantined instead of going to school.
"If your kid is in the classroom and they're experiencing symptoms, then the student has to go home but we also have to quarantine other kids because of that," Omer said.
Though the current guidelines require students to quarantine if within the 3-foot social distance, vaccines could potentially alleviate the number of quarantined students.
If a student is vaccinated, then they are not required to quarantine unless they begin showing symptoms, although the district leaves decisions on vaccination up to students and their parents.
"There are pros and cons, but looking at it from the lens of a school student, you have to consider the effectiveness of it," Omer said.
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