The Big Spring School Board learned Monday night the district administration is continuing to battle the unknowns associated with the COVID pandemic in efforts to keep schools open as other area districts have been forced to close buildings and return to an all-virtual education model.
According to Superintendent Dr. Richard Fry, though the district has reported positive cases of the virus, their consistent efforts of mask requirements, social distancing of at least 6 feet, reduced occupancy and increased ventilation, hand washing and cleaning and disinfecting have kept them from seeing cases spread throughout district buildings.
“Those protocols have kept us safe in our district, and we have had little to no school spread,” he noted. “We had some isolated cases, but these measures reduce the likelihood of transmission. As of today, 23 individuals through the district have been quarantined and five of those are current cases -- three in the high school, one in the middle school and one at Oak Flat Elementary.”
Fry said since the beginning of the pandemic in March, the district has had 57 suspected cases and 18 confirmed cases.
Fry noted that they are working hard to keep school open on a hybrid, modified schedule, but added the district is prepared to revert back to an all-virtual model if the cases in Cumberland County continue to rise. As of Monday, 59 of the state’s 67 counties are reported to have “substantial” COVID-19 spread, according to the Department of Health. Substantial spread indicates a county has a positivity rate of 100 new cases per 100,000 residents in a seven-day period.
Fry provided the board with current positivity rates in the county, including in the local zip codes that the district serves -- Newville Borough, Carlisle, Newburg and Shippensburg.
“Cumberland County is now considered a ‘substantial’ spread county,” Fry added. “This is the first time Cumberland has been substantial. We are starting to see that slow ascent again across the state, which is what we were told would happen by the experts. What’s changed since the spring is obviously the number of tests, but that does not affect the positivity rate. The state’s positivity rate has gone up from 5 percent to 9.6 percent in recent weeks. Last week, it was at 6.9 percent.”
Fry said positivity rates in Newville are 17.86 percent; Carlisle is 35.26 percent; Newburg is 15.8 percent; and Shippensburg is 21.9 percent. Using seven-day figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Fry said Carlisle was reporting 23 additional cases since Friday of last week, and Shippensburg has reported 30 additional cases since Friday.
He noted: “Eight percent of the cases in Cumberland County are coming from school-age children, mainly middle and high school students. Again, that is what the experts told us would happen. We are seeing this across the globe.”
Fry said they are seeing a 23 percent of positives in the county are due to specific outbreaks.
“The scary side of that is 77 percent is by general community spread,” he added.
Fry said the district is following guidelines from the Department of Health, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of right now, the state is not mandating the closure of school districts in substantial spread counties, and the decision is being left to local districts. As of this week, Carlisle School District has closed all of its buildings until at least Nov. 30 due to an uptick in coronavirus cases. Boiling Springs High School is closed until Dec. 1, and Grace B. Luhrs Elementary School in Shippensburg is closed until Thanksgiving Break.
“We are still hanging in there, and we are still staying face-to-face,” he added. “But, if the cases continue to rise, and the positivity rate is greater than 10 percent, we need to go all virtual at that point. We have to plan for that.”
Fry said that is absolutely anticipated at this point.
During the meeting, Fry and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kevin Roberts also discussed the results of a recent Thought Exchange between the district and elementary-age parents regarding the district’s plan to move to a four-day face-to-face schedule when the time is right.
Fry noted the plan will include modified transportation, lunchroom and arrival and dismissal schedules, reduced classroom capacity, maximized social distancing, limiting group activities to less than 15 students, and Plexiglas dividers for every student.
“During the Thought Exchange, we asked participants what excites and concerns them about moving to Tier 3 at the elementary level,” Roberts noted. “We had 121 participants share 158 thoughts, and over our three buildings, the number of participants was pretty well split over all three buildings.”
Roberts shared some of the highlighted concerns such as, “Cases are worse than ever. You should have gone back full time when they were less,” and that they are concerned about the health and safety of students and staff, and they feel it is unwise to send them back full time.
Other parents noted they wanted their children back to a face-to-face learning environment because that is where they learn best, and they need the interaction with teachers and peers, especially because there are parents who are not teachers.
Others noted they were concerned that if they go back full time, cases will increase and the district will be forced to close, which could uproot their children from effective learning.
Some participants noted they were concerned over the effectiveness of face coverings and about social distancing.
“When we started this model, it was all about opening schools in the fall and staying open,” Fry noted. “We haven’t shut down for a day. We haven’t had to do that. Districts around us have closed buildings, but we have not. That could change tomorrow. That’s the nuance of this virus. We are taking it building by building. If we need to go virtual, we will do that in conjunction with the Department of Health, based on the numbers.”
Fry noted the district has compared student benchmarks from this October versus last October, and overall, the students are on track. He added there are areas that need improvement, including helping families in poverty.
“Every school district faces this, and we know we have to do better,” he added. “The pandemic has really brought that into the light.”
Fry said the district is holding a virtual parent/community town hall regarding the Tier 3 transition at the elementary level at 6 p.m. tonight via Zoom. More information on gaining access to the meeting can be found on the district website: www.bigspringsd.org.
Fry also plans to hold a virtual staff update this week, and add another video for community members to access on the district website on Friday.