School districts find success with full in-person learning in Wayne and Pike counties

Sarah Hofius Hall, The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.
·7 min read

Feb. 28—PALMYRA TWP. — The freshmen sat in desks pushed up against one another, listening to Rich McGinnis' history lesson at Wallenpaupack Area High School.

Each student wore a mask Friday, and along with all of the 11,000 public school students in Wayne and Pike counties, has the option to attend in-person instruction daily.

Classrooms look different across Lackawanna County's eastern border.

As the leaders of some Scranton-area districts make the decision to bring students back four or five days a week, superintendents outside Lackawanna County say they've proven they can offer in-person instruction safely.

"It's great to see the kids here, and the parents having a level of comfort," Wallenpaupack Area Superintendent Michael Silsby said. "That came from the opportunity of having choices. We always want to err on the side of caution. You just pray you make the right decisions and you get through it unscathed and everyone has a safe and healthy experience."

Abington Heights will bring students back five days a week starting March 8, followed by Mid Valley on March 16. North Pocono surveyed its parents, and school directors will discuss options at their March 11 meeting. Superintendents of those districts look to leaders outside the county and beyond for guidance and proven methods of controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

"We are not taking COVID lightly," said Abington Heights Superintendent Michael Mahon, Ph.D. "The prospect of transmission is very serious and foremost in our minds. All of the indicators point toward being able to be open five days a week successfully."

Making decisions

Last summer, as COVID-19 case counts remained low in Wayne and Pike counties, the superintendents of Wallenpaupack Area, Wayne Highlands, Western Wayne and Delaware Valley met with experts and discussed ways for students to return to their classrooms after the state forced all districts to close in mid-March.

The schools decided to offer families a full return, with as much social distancing as possible, or for students to watch their classes live from home or enroll in district virtual academies. About 75% to 80% of families in the districts chose to send their children to school.

"I know when schools are merging into this, they have great concerns, as did we," Wayne Highlands Superintendent Gregory Frigoletto said. "If the expectations are high, I totally believe it can be done safely."

Maintenance staff transformed gymnasiums, stages and orchestra pits into places for students to eat lunch. Teachers took their classes outside. Parents drove their children to school to help lessen the crowd on buses.

"Our students needed to be back in," Western Wayne Superintendent Matthew Barrett, Ed.D., said. "They were so happy to be here. They are still happy to be here. It's well-needed in the community."

State and federal recommendations call for six feet between students "to the maximum extent feasible." Hybrid learning, or when half the students attend in-person certain days of the week and the remaining students attend the other days, usually allows for at least six feet between students. When all students are present, that space is essentially cut in half. Abington Heights students could have as little as three feet of space between them when they return next week, Mahon said.

Both Wayne and Pike counties entered the state's substantial phase for transmission in late November, after spending the summer in low transmission. State guidelines in the fall called for districts in the substantial phase to offer virtual instruction only. Updated recommendations from January now call for districts in counties in the substantial phase to offer hybrid education to elementary students when possible, and for secondary students to remain virtual.

Leaders of the districts said they discussed options as cases in the community grew. The leaders could find very little evidence, if any, that the virus had ever been spread while in school.

"We told people, if at any time you have reached your concern level, you can switch to virtual," Delaware Valley Superintendent John Bell, Ed.D., said. "Everyone doesn't have to agree, but we try to have as many options as possible."

Wayne Highlands considered health and safety, along with the continuity of education students desired and the great burden virtual or hybrid education has on families, Frigoletto said. The dangers of the coronavirus are great, but students also face great risks with not receiving in-person instruction, he said.

As of last week, of 500 school districts in Pennsylvania:

21% offer full in-person learning models.

42% offer hybrid or blended learning models.

38% are in total remote learning models.

In Lackawanna County, two districts — Carbondale Area and Scranton — remain fully virtual. Carbondale plans to begin bringing students back in phases for hybrid learning March 8. Scranton planned to have elementary students start hybrid March 15 and 22, though those dates could be delayed because of staffing issues and building ventilation concerns.

The superintendents in Wayne and Pike counties know each district in the region is unique and could have its own challenges in reopening fully.

"We're very grateful to be in school," Barrett said.

Positive cases

Being fully back has not been without challenges. School leaders know where students sit in classrooms, the cafeteria and on the bus. Without always having the ability to be six feet apart, a positive case could mean large groups of students must quarantine. An entire school may need to shut down and its students learn virtually for a few days or more, depending on the number of positive cases.

Western Wayne had to temporarily close its high school when too many staff members had to quarantine. Shortly after Thanksgiving, 96 of Wallenpaupack's 500 employees had to quarantine. As of last week, 60 of the district's 3,000 students were forced to learn from home because of positive cases or potential exposure.

Delaware Valley, with 4,400 students and 650 staff members, has seen 146 positive cases since schools opened. The district had little evidence of spread within its seven buildings up until this month, after six students and five staff members tested positive at Shohola Elementary School, Bell said.

The schools continue to work to get all of their staff members vaccinated.

Options at Trail

In the Lackawanna Trail School District, which draws students from both Lackawanna and Wyoming counties, students also have the option to attend school in-person each day.

Nearly six months into this school year, the number of students who selected the district's virtual option help the in-person students stay apart.

Only about 45% of students regularly attend the in-person option at the junior-senior high school. At the elementary level, 86% of students receive in-person instruction.

The junior-senior school temporarily closed in the fall after members of an athletic team tested positive for the virus, and the district also closed for two weeks after Christmas. Since then, the school has not had any positive cases among students and staff, Principal Mark Murphy, Ph.D., said.

At the junior-senior school last week, teachers stood near their laptops, calling on students learning from home or in the class. In the cafeteria, students sat two per table, facing the same direction.

Students have their temperature taken each morning and follow arrows in the hallway to help control traffic. The school also went to a block schedule for this year, meaning students have longer class periods and less time in the hall changing classes.

As he walks through the building, Murphy checks on students and teachers.

"We put our plan in place and rallied together to make it happen," Murphy said. "It makes me feel proud of our community."

Dealing with change

At Wallenpaupack on Friday, students kept their masks above their noses. The choir practiced in the auditorium, distanced apart and masked. When the band practices, students use a special cover for their instruments to help contain germs from blowing through mouthpieces.

In the cafeteria, with its stunning view of Lake Wallenpaupack, only four students can sit at the long tables, instead of large groups of friends.

"It's not optimal, it's not the best. But it's better than the alternative of them not being here," Assistant Superintendent Keith Gunuskey said.

In McGinnis' history class, students used their iPads and other students followed along virtually on Zoom.

"Everyone has needed to adapt. You evolve," McGinnis said. "It's good to be back here, in front of the kids."

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