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Cases, quarantines & remote learning: How is COVID-19 affecting Centre County schools?

Centre Daily Times - 10/3/2021

Oct. 3—The 2021-22 school year is well underway as districts navigate another year in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local school districts are continuing with mitigation efforts — physical distancing, masks and sanitizing — but positive cases continue to pop up. Centre County is currently listed as "high community transmission" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two local districts have had at least one classroom temporarily move to remote learning due to a high amount of positive cases and/or quarantines.

Centre County has had 401 COVID-19 cases among school-aged kids (5-18) since Aug. 16 and 60 cases among kids aged 0-4 in the same time frame, according to the state Department of Health, though the cases may not necessarily have stemmed from an exposure in school or child care.

Statewide, the number of COVID cases in children ages 5-18 is almost 10 times higher than it was at this time last year. From Sept. 22-28, 2020, there were 745 cases; during the same week this year, there were 7,352, the Health Department said.

Below is an overview of the impact COVID-19 has had on each Centre County school district. In most cases, it is fully dependent on if the student, parent or staff member reports a positive case to the school district.

Bald Eagle Area School District

The Bald Eagle Area School District has had at least 37 cases during the 2021-22 school year; the district's case numbers are "up significantly from last year this time," Superintendent Scott Graham told the Centre Daily Times in an email. The district has seen a large amount of quarantines, which has affected academics and extracurricular activities, Graham wrote.

He said there "appears to be more transmission within school this year compared to last year," based on anecdotal evidence.

Though the district said it was enforcing the statewide mask mandate for schools, the board and administration told parents during a Sept. 22 school board meeting that students not wearing a mask would not be punished.

But after more than 270 students went unmasked, the district reversed that decision and announced those who aren't in compliance with the order would "face progressive disciplinary action according to district policy" starting last week.

Bellefonte Area School District

The Bellefonte Area School District has seen a total of 38 COVID-19 cases; 31 of them were student cases, according to communications sent to parents. BASD's first known cases during last school year came Oct. 8, 2020.

During the Sept. 21 BASD school board meeting, Superintendent Tammie Burnaford said the district has "far less quarantines than we've ever had due to mask wearing."

Burnaford provides case updates on Mondays and Fridays, those letters can be found on the district's website.

The district kept most of its mitigation efforts for this school year, including student desks placed at least three feet apart, frequent cleaning and sanitizing and limiting outside visitors. The ventilation system at the middle school was also upgraded during the summer, Burnaford wrote in a letter to parents. Elementary students are eating lunch in their classrooms as well.

Penns Valley Area School District

As of Friday, the Penns Valley Area School District has had 75 COVID-19 cases; 64 of them were student cases and 11 were among staff. PVASD's case count can be found on its website, which is updated daily. During the 2020-21 school year, PVASD's first known positive COVID-19 case came Oct. 15, 2020.

Last school year, with the exception of one case, the district did not see transmission between people within the school buildings, Nate Althouse, community relations director for PVASD, told the CDT in an email.

That has changed this school year. The district has "definitely seen a pattern of transmission within our school buildings," Althouse wrote.

There was a "spike" after the Grange Fair, Althouse wrote, and though cases have leveled off they haven't gone away. He wrote there's a mixture of people contracting COVID-19 outside of the school and inside the school.

Any quarantine keeps a student out of the classroom for at least seven days, Althouse said, which can impact their academics.

At the beginning of the fall sports season, two sports teams and the marching band were sidelined due to positive cases within the groups. The football team lost a scrimmage and then its original first opponent due to COVID-19 (they were able to find another team nearby in the same situation to play against). The volleyball team was unable to get in the minimum preseason practices required by the PIAA to start the season, so they missed a tournament and had to postpone their first league match, Althouse wrote.

Before the school year began and the state's mask mandate was in place, Penns Valley had its own temporary universal mask rule.

"Our number one priority is keeping our students in school and educating them here in an environment that keeps them safe. It seems like we should be farther along on the road back to normalcy, but we have no choice but to soldier on. It's not easy. It's not fun. It's not convenient, but we have to do what we have to do to keep our students in school and we're very committed to that," Althouse wrote.

Philipsburg-Osceola School District

Philipsburg-Osceola Superintendent Gregg Paladina declined to give the exact number of COVID-19 cases within the district, but said each building had "less than five" cases, with the exception of Osceola Mills Elementary.

OEM has had 10 cases as of Thursday, Paladina told the CDT, with nine cases in one grade level. Two classrooms temporarily moved to remote learning for a week because of the amount of quarantines and cases.

Last school year, P-O didn't have "a lot of cases" in September, Paladina said, but saw the cases escalate after Thanksgiving break.

"I think we're doing well ... we're managing it well, we're still sticking to our stringent protocols of cleaning, we have extra custodians to help those things. But right now we're just managing. It's not as bad as it was at its highest point," Paladina said.

State College Area School District

As of Thursday, the State College Area School District has had a total of 82 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the school year. Fifty-seven of those cases were among in-person students, 15 were among regularly scheduled employees and the rest were among either as-needed subs and/or volunteers, and students who hadn't been in the building within the previous 10 days, or who did virtual learning. SCASD's case count can be found on its website, which is updated daily.

Last year at this time, SCASD had five cases; three in-person students, one regularly scheduled employee and one remote or virtual academy student, Chris Rosenblum, director of communications for the district, told the Centre Daily Times in an email.

On Sept. 24, all three fifth grade classes at Mount Nittany Elementary moved to temporary remote learning, which is set to end Monday. There were seven total cases from two classrooms, Rosenblum wrote, but all the classes moved to remote learning since the rooms interact with each other during recess, lunch and math instruction.

"These classes are in Panorama Village Administrative Center rooms this year due to space issues, so the rest of MNE wasn't potentially impacted," he wrote.

After reviewing the district cases and contact tracing results, the district announced Sept. 27 that the classroom layouts would change in some elementary classrooms as an "additional precautionary measure." By putting desks into rows, the district said it would increase physical distancing and "enhance our mitigation efforts."

Superintendent Bob O'Donnell also requested last month that parents drop elementary school students off at school rather than have them ride the bus, in order to reduce the number of close contacts and quarantine time.

"Though we've recently seen an uptick in our cases, we remain confident that our health and safety protocols continue to enable us to provide in-person learning safely. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we're monitoring local conditions as well as our school environments, and making changes to our protocols and practices when needed," Rosenblum wrote.

Prior to the statewide masking order for schools, SCASD announced it would require everyone to wear a mask while indoors.

SCASD has 1,422 employees reporting being fully vaccinated, including approximately 85% of its teachers, Rosenblum shared. On Wednesday from 2-6 p.m., the district will partner with Centre Volunteers in Medicine to offer a vaccination clinic at State High'sNorth Building for employees, eligible students and the public.


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