Mifflinburg, Lewisburg school officials to track COVID-19 cases after state recommends online-only start

Robert Inglis/The Daily Item The Mifflinburg High School.

Frustrated parents of students in the Mifflinburg Area School District may get another meeting with school board members regarding the scheduled opening of school next month.

An online petition started Friday morning had more than 200 signatures by Friday night, with a request for a second emergency meeting to review options for the school year. School Board President Dennis Keiser said Friday night he is hopeful a meeting can be set up.

"We want to make sure everybody works together," Keiser said. "We want to make sure to do what is best for our students."

Following a lengthy meeting Tuesday night, Mifflinburg's school board voted to change how students would attend school when the year starts on Sept. 8. The board voted 7-2 to adopt a blended model. The plan calls for students in grades kindergarten through fifth to attend either in-person five days a week or exclusively online. Older students in grades six to 12 will go to school in-person at least twice weekly and learning remotely on the other days, or online only. Attendance will be split in secondary schools alphabetically, ensuring about half the student population will be in-person and the other half off-campus.

The lack of a five-day, in-person model for middle and high school students led to the petition, parents said. All other Valley school districts have five-day in-person options, which the majority of families selected over a mix of remote options.

"I've got a number of issues and things that need to be considered," said Michael Morrison. "Mental and physical well-being of the students is the No. 1 concern. Kids need their teachers, they need the emotional support they provide. That's not available when you are trying to do these things from home."

The petition posted on change.org requests for the "school board to hold an emergency meeting to vote for option A (grades K-12 to attend school full time). Mifflinburg is now the only local district not sending our children to school full time. Make them hear our voices."

Mifflinburg pushed the start of the school year back after Union County was flagged by the state Department of Health because of an increase in cases earlier this month. When the state pointed to a metric measuring cases per capita, Union County was the only in the state in the "substantial" category of 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day window. On Friday, Union County dipped below the threshold — which the state was using to recommend remote learning only if a county was over the threshold for two consecutive weeks — for the first time in three weeks.

While Union Couty has had 359 cases of coronavirus since March, only 36 are in the Mifflinburg ZIP Code according to the latest state data. Neighboring Lewisburg Area, which also pushed back the start of the school but will have five-day in-person instruction as an option, had 182 cases in the latest data released on Friday.

"Everybody is frustrated," said Fred Reibsome, who has four children, three who are school age in the district. "Everybody in town wants the kids to go back to school full-time. (The board) never broke it down to give the parents the option."

The district had previously settled on allowing all district parents to choose in-person or remote learning. Initial planning offered five different choices and the option chosen Tuesday wasn't among the five. Option A, which included a five-day in-person plan for all students, wasn't voted on, Keiser said.

It was the lack of a vote on that option that drove the petition, parents said.

"We were given five ideas and then the board picked one that wasn't even on the list," said Vicki Pachucki, who has a child in all three of Mifflinburg's schools, fourth, seventh and 10th grades. "What we want is a vote on Option A, K through 12, and see if it passes. It's 100 percent about the lack of me being able to choose, as a parent, what I think is best for my children. It might be different from child to child. But I want the option."

Morrison, who has children in seventh and eighth grades, wonders why the district chose to send the younger students five days a week, but not the older students.

"Why is the older group of students penalized?" he asked. "There was no real explanation."

Keiser said the board opted for K-5 returning in person because officials thought they would have more room in the school to social distance and it would also help with parents who may struggle with child care. Having the younger students in class means their parents would be able to manage jobs better, he said.

"It's a very difficult situation," he said. "It's difficult for the superintendent, for administrators, for teachers. It can happen so quickly."

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