The Lewisburg Area School Board meets Thursday and as state education guidelines continue to evolve in the coronavirus pandemic, members will again vote on a Health and Safety plan determining whether students will return to school in-person.
The board on Aug. 6 approved a plan to bring students back to district buildings for the 2020-21 school year. A week later, it pushed back the planned staggered start dates to Sept. 9-10 after Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine recommended Union County schools transition to full-time remote learning due to the rising spread of COVID-19.
As of Friday, Union County was the only Pennsylvania county to be listed as having “substantial” community transmission. It’s been alone in that category for three weeks running, though critics point to the substantial spread of COVID-19 inside the Lewisburg federal prison and a drug treatment facility.
State departments of Health and Education recommend any county in the “substantial” category shift to remote-only learning.
“What’s on the agenda is to go back in person. Obviously, that could change tomorrow,” board President Jordan Fetzer said.
The board must now reconsider its plan, in part, to reflect changes like the stricter statewide masking policy for students and staff. According to the state, face coverings must be worn in almost all circumstances inside school buildings regardless of social distancing.
The Wolf Administration’s Early Warning Monitoring System measures transmission data in a seven-day period. It compares data on week-to-week differences such as new cases, incidence rate, COVID-19 testing and hospitalizations.
Union County has seen 227 new cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 1, far more than its cumulative total leading to that date. Its incidence rate for Aug. 14-20 is 158.5 per 100,000 residents. The two next closest are neighboring Montour and Northumberland counties at 76.8 and 72.5, respectively.
Dr. Jennifer Polinchock, Lewisburg Area superintendent, said she will propose to the board that district schools stay open at least for its initial three-day week. That would allow students to retrieve devices and review expectations by teachers for learning either in-person or at home.
The coming data in the next two weeks may well influence how long the district may be able to educate students in-person, Polinchock said. However, she said more transparency is needed from the state Department of Health (DoH).
“They only report the total number of cases, and it is not clear if that total number still includes people who have passed the 14-day mark or no longer being contagious or recovered, and if addresses are reported correctly. DoH insists that the address issue has been resolved, but that is not what I am hearing from reliable sources with access to the detailed data. It's already been reported about the numbers of cases associated with the prison, treatment facility, and nursing home connections. They do not factor those cases out of the community spread,” Polinchock said.
Polinchock said a decision is pending from the Department of Health on whether superintendents can access restricted data that local emergency providers are privy to. Such data would do well in informing local school officials when making decisions about bringing students back to schools, she said.
“If it is local control, as they say, then we need the information to make sound decisions for our communities,” Polinchock said.