Central Pa. school districts plan for return of kids: What you should know about masks, seating and buses

  • Jan Murphy/PennLive
  • Steve Marroni/PennLive

(Harrisburg) — With the new school year fast approaching and the COVID-19 pandemic still hanging around, school districts are finalizing their preparations to ensure a safe return to in-person, five-day-a-week instruction.

Many have taken steps to improve their school ventilation systems in recent weeks and months. They have or are re-supplying their buildings with disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers. Some arranged rooms to allow for at least 3 feet of social distancing wherever possible, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends.

While none appear to be mandating vaccinations for staff or students age 12 and up, districts are recommending the shots and providing information about and promoting vaccinations. Some also are offering clinics.

They also have answered the most pressing question on the minds of many: Will students be required to wear masks?

When it comes to riding in a school vehicle, the answer depends on the district. Based on a PennLive review of 13 central Pennsylvania school districts’ proposed or adopted health and safety plans, many seem to be adhering to the state Department of Education guidance, which follows the CDC order that masks must be worn in public transportation. In the department’s eyes, that includes school transportation.

Others, such as Mechanicsburg Area School District, continue to review this issue and are seeking further clarification on what is required and what is recommended, according to its Superintendent Mark Leidy.

Meanwhile, Carlisle Area School District has taken the stance that it does not consider school buses to be public transportation and therefore, it will not require masks to be worn on its buses, according to a report in The Sentinel.

None of those school districts is requiring masks to be worn inside school buildings, PennLive’s review found.

The education department, again following the current CDC guidance, recommends face coverings be worn by the unvaccinated students, teachers and staff. But it is not a requirement.

The state’s guidance also states that the CDC recommends but doesn’t require masks for individuals participating in sports and extra-curricular activities.

Pennsylvania’s Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson said schools are always welcome to impose stricter rules than what the CDC recommends.

Districts are required to post their health and safety plans on their websites. Some school boards have already adopted their plans while others intend to vote on their district’s plan in the coming days or next month.

Mark Pynes / PennLive

Pennsylvania’s Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson and Acting Department of Human Services Secretary Meg Snead speak about keeping children under 12 safe during the pandemic, at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, Pa., July 21, 2021.

Virtual options remain

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday issued guidance recommending universal masking for students over age 2 and staff, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. They say most schools aren’t tracking vaccination status so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

But so far, it appears local school districts have shunned the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance.

The same day the pediatrics’ organization issued its recommendation, the West Perry School Board approved its health and safety plan for the 2021-22 school year.

David Zula, West Perry’s superintendent, said that guidance didn’t cause his board to make any last-minute changes to impose a universal mask mandate, particularly given the input they gathered from other health organizations and since its community transmission of COVID-19 cases is low.

“It’s tough,” Zula said. “There’s so many groups putting their input in that sometimes it’s confusing.”

The board approved a plan to make face coverings optional for students who choose to return for full face-to-face instruction. Like other districts, West Perry intends to offer a virtual option for students who prefer that instructional delivery method.

Some, including Lower Dauphin, found such a low lack of interest in virtual learning in some grades they are not offering it for those students.

The Middletown School District sent a note to parents saying it is adhering to the education department’s advice of recommending unvaccinated students and staff wear masks but it is not requiring them to do so. However, visitors will be required to mask up, since contract tracing anyone coming in from the outside is a challenge.

Meanwhile, Northern York County School District’s proposed health and safety plan mentions that local data and feedback suggest “universal mask wearing has caused distraction and discomfort such that student attendance and participation in our instructional program is adversely affected.”

As a result, Northern York is not requiring students or staff to wear a face-covering but it plans, as other districts do as well, to support those who do.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Parked school buses are lined up at the storage area while they are idled during school closings due to the COVID-19 and coronavirus outbreak, Monday, March 30, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa.

Seating and bus schedules

Making masks optional and slightly relaxed physical distancing requirements going to a minimum of three feet from an earlier recommendation of at least six feet appear to be the biggest changes from last year for how school districts plan to ensure a safe environment amid this pandemic.

But there are others. Lower Dauphin School District plans to return to pre-pandemic seating in its cafeterias.

Similarly, Northern York, Mechanicsburg and South Middleton School District’s proposed health and safety plans indicate they plan to go back to pre-pandemic full school bus occupancy. Northern York’s plan said to do otherwise would exceed its transportation budget allowance and staffing levels.

The Shippensburg Area School District is modifying its bus schedules so students report directly to their first class to avoid congregating before school, according to its approved health and safety plan.

Many districts, including Susquenita and Big Spring school districts, have assessed and made improvements to their school ventilation systems to increase the intake of outdoor air.

Plans are ‘polarizing’ to some

Crafting plans to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread is challenging for district officials, especially as cases of the delta variant continue to rise, which creates the potential for CDC guidance to change particularly as it relates to mask wearing in schools.

What’s more, districts wrestle with the nearly impossible task of ensuring parents’ concerns are heard and giving them confidence their thoughts are taken into consideration.

“Even at this stage of the pandemic, options on what is best remain widely disparate and vary sharply from family to family,” said Derry Township School District spokesman Dan Tredinnick.

That district vetted its mitigation ideas with a team of more than 30 people from various backgrounds before drafting its recommendations.

Still, Tredinnick said, “Some approaches to mitigation remain polarizing, no matter what approach we land on, at least some part of our constituency is going to disagree.”

Dan Gleiter / PennLive

Beth Richards, a health and physical education substitute teacher for several school districts, received her vaccine. Teachers and school staff from four counties receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in East Pennsboro Township, March 11, 2021.

Teachers’ union: ‘Employ masking’

Perhaps the most polarizing of all has been the issue of facial coverings.

The statewide teachers’ union stands by the CDC recommendation that unvaccinated individuals should wear masks to ensure a safe environment for in-person learning.

“Schools should employ masking as one part of a multi-layered approach to preventing virus transmission and keeping schools safe, along with other measures like social distancing and promoting vaccinations where possible,” said Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

As districts develop health and safety plans for the upcoming school year, they also continue to struggle with the fact that the education department issues guidance, rather than orders, on what districts should do to mitigate COVID-19 risks.

The chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said that has left school solicitors trying to connect the dots between what appears to be optional from what really isn’t.

“The prevailing wisdom is, well, we can’t know what the current CDC guidance will be in September so let’s come up with a plan that makes the most sense to us but always, always include a proviso that says as CDC guidance changes, we will adjust our plan accordingly,” Knade said.

All of this is with the goal, several interviewed said, to not only start the school year as normal as possible but to make it through the whole year that way.

“Patience, grace and flexibility remain critical,” Tredinnick said. “While we certainly hope there aren’t nearly as many changes to the school schedules as there were last year, we will continue to do what we feel is best for the well-being of our students and staff.”


This story originally appeared at pennlive.com.

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