About 80 percent of Selinsgrove District students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, are expected to return to the classroom Wednesday, 159 days after Gov. Tom Wolf announced the shutdown of all schools in the state to in-person learning due to the novel coronavirus.

New Selinsgrove schools Superintendent Frank Jankowski said today that his district is as prepared as it can be to start the school year. The district is the first public school in the Valley to open the school year.

Buses will start arriving on campus between 9 and 9:30 a.m., Jankowski said.

"We do anticipate a reduction in bus riders based upon parent feedback," he said. "However we are maintaining the same number of buses that we always had, which should help create distance between riders."

Loading procedures will have the back of the bus loaded first. "And there will be family seating," Jankowski said. Siblings will be seated together. 

"When we exit the bus," he continued, "they will empty from the front first, obviously."

The question of how many students can be on a bus, and potential capacity limits, "is not something that is in play in the state," Jankowski said. "It has not been altered because it would have drastic implications for bus companies and school districts. You'd have to add buses to various fleets, and those extra buses might not exist."

Masks at all times

Students will be wearing masks or face guards at all times while in school,  even when six feet of social distancing can be achieved. 

This change of in-person protocol happened suddenly, Monday afternoon, said Jankowski.

Prior guidance from the state's Department of Health (DOH) stated students in schools could remove their face coverings as long as six feet of social distancing could be maintained.

But DOH changed the required protocol after the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommended that children age two and older should wear face coverings at all times to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

"We will, of course, follow the guidelines required," Jankowski said. "The update to the face-covering order just came out. That is going to be something that impacts the way people view the school climate. It affects all the school districts in Pennsylvania. 

"As regards our plan," Jankowski said, "we feel it is as flexible as it can be for families to make decisions and for the district to react as quickly as possible to any kind of requirement or closure that would come our way outside our community.

The plan still does allow for some situations where masks can be removed, especially when students are eating at least six feet from each other. And there are some opportunities for face mask breaks to occur.

"But as far as how it impacts our Health and Safety Plan," Jankowski said, "students taking off their face coverings even if six feet or more distanced from other students ... that is off the table." 

Outdoor learning

Jankowski plans to use the school campus, "our grounds, in addition to our brick and mortar classrooms. There are tents that we have purchased and on days when it is not a weather issue, we will have our staff utilize our grounds to the fullest."

Jankowski had already planned for face-covering breaks, "and we do have face shields for any family that would like their child to have a face shield," he said. "It's another change. It's just prior to school starting. But we are going to abide by all the rules, because that is what is required of us. We'll also do our best to accommodate what the community wants.

“We are as prepared as we’re going to be," he said. "There’s only so much you can do in a hypothetical situation. It’s important that our students and staff meet each other. We’re going to come back and do it as safely as possible.

Selinsgrove Area Education Association Vice President Mike Stebila, a high school business teacher, said "I think it is great, so far as teachers having guidance from the state. Whether you like or don't like wearing masks, if we can take the gray area out as much as possible it benefits every student and teacher." 

Justin Simpson, athletic director and interim buildings and grounds director, said "Wall-less tents have been erected outside each school building and, along with the stadium, tennis courts and other outdoor spaces, will be used by faculty and students."

“Our teachers are prepared to use dual platforms” to provide in-person and online education to students, he said.

Rooms reconfigured

In the elementary school, the cafeteria and a portion of the gymnasium has been set up to accommodate students who will be seated on one side of every table facing the same direction to help maintain social distancing. A touchless system has been installed in the cafeteria, with students being issued a card to purchase lunches.

Items have been removed from classrooms and elementary teachers have redesigned the way they instruct to reduce the amount of physical interaction.

Warrior Run, Milton next

The rest of the Valley's school districts open in the next couple of weeks, with Warrior Run and Milton opening Thursday. 

Warrior Run School District Superintendent Alan Hack said "We understand that wearing a face-covering is going to be the norm for operating schools this year and had previously built mask breaks into our reopening plans. We believe our students have the resiliency to overcome these challenges, and our staff will continue to plan necessary mask breaks throughout the school day." 

While the timing of the mandatory masking news is disappointing, he said, "we will adapt to the new mandate and work to ensure that our students, faculty, staff, and school community are safe and healthy."

Many of the rooms in the Warrior Run district were rearranged to accommodate the six-foot distance to allow for students to not wear masks, in accordance with the prior mandate, Hack said. "Students will now be required to wear a face-covering regardless of distance of separation, unless one of the limited exceptions apply."

The Milton Area School District, said Superintendent Cathy Keegan, "will continue to follow its board-approved health and safety plan.

She said revisions will be made based on requirements set forth by the state health and education departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Each time a requirement is received, a revision will be made and the Health and Safety Plan will be board approved again," she said.

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