Thousands of local students returned to schools last week amid a surge in COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant spreads throughout the region.
School districts are expecting to encounter mounting staffing issues – including teachers, bus drivers, cooks, and custodians –and student absences as a result of the soaring coronavirus cases.
But school districts are doing everything they can to remain open for in-person learning.
“We know the next month is going to be challenging,” said Jefferson-Morgan School District Assistant Superintendent Brandon Robinson, noting the district has more students, families, and staff who are dealing with the impact of the omicron variant. “Over the next month, I think we’re going to see a lot of students and staff test positive. But, being in school is important, academically, socially and emotionally.”
According to the state Department of Health, Washington County reported 809 new COVID cases on Wednesday and an additional 481 cases on Thursday.
The total COVID cases reported for the past week was the highest of the pandemic.
Over the two-day period on Wednesday and Thursday, 14 people in the county died from COVID, raising the total number of deaths to 535.
In a letter sent to families and the community, Charleroi Area School District Superintendent Dr. Edward Zelich said the school district will do everything possible to maintain in-person learning, but noted it might not be possible.
The COVID-19 situation and its impact on our ability to safely staff our schools is rapidly changing,” Zelich said in the statement. “We will continue to closely monitor the status, including during the evening hours, and we will inform you of decisions affecting our students and staff as quickly as possible.”
Zelich said the school district will work to protect the health of students, staff, and the community.
He said parents will be notified if and when staffing limitations require a classroom, grade level, or school to move to virtual learning.
“While we hope that these measures will not be necessary, we wanted to be proactive and notify parents of the possibility so that plans can be made for potential virtual learning days,” Zelich wrote.
In Fayette County, 342 new cases were reported over the most recent two-day period, and the death toll in the county stands at 546.
Greene County saw 43 new cases on Wednesday and 55 on Thursday, with no new deaths reported.
At Jefferson-Morgan, there are no plans to move the entire district to virtual learning, but there is a chance some grades may have to pivot in the future.
So far during the 2021-22 school year, there have been no closures at the high school, but some elementary grade levels have switched to remote learning due to COVID cases.
“We’re very fortunate that our teachers are really great at change, they’re great at pivoting at the last minute, and that’s what we’ve tried to do throughout the pandemic,” said Robinson.
Bentworth School District this week has experienced more positive COVID cases than it did before winter break, “but the numbers are not alarming,” according to Superintendent Dr. Scott Martin.
He said it’s been challenging to fill substitute positions in the classroom and on buses, but said the district has developed contingency plans for those situations.
“The Bentworth community is strong, and I know this too will pass,” Martin wrote in an email.
Ringgold School District this week offered parents an option to change their schooling option, which includes remote learning
One move that could help get students and staff back in the classroom sooner is new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that has cut in half the amount of time COVID-positive students and staff need to spend out of class, depending on whether or not a person is showing symptoms. And, vaccinated and boosted close contacts do not need to quarantine if asymptomatic, but the CDC recommends they wear a mask for 10 days after exposure and take a test on the fifth day.
And school districts are taking advantage of emergency substitute teacher programs implemented by the state Department of Education that enable college education majors with more than 60 credit hours and adults with a college degree who undergo training to become substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who are sick or are at home with sick children.
“It’s proven to be beneficial to us,” said Robinson, who said the district is using education majors at Waynesburg University and California University of Pennsylvania who qualify. “That helps relieve the situation that we’re in.”
Safety is a priority, Robinson noted, and said the school district will use the lessons and tools of the past two years to try to navigate the latest surge without long-term shutdowns, which impacted students’ learning.
“We will continue to roll with the punches,” said Robinson.