The state teachers union is calling for schools in 38 counties in Pennsylvania – including Lebanon and neighbors such as Berks, Dauphin, and Lancaster – to shut down their classrooms and move entirely to remote learning as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.

In a statement on Nov. 11, PSEA President Rich Askey said districts should follow state public health guidelines for school operations, including transitioning to remote learning when community transmission rates reach critical levels.

According guidelines provided by the state departments of Health and Education, districts in counties with a substantial level of community spread (100 or more incidents per 100,000 or a 10 percent or higher positivity rate), should operate with a “full remote learning model,” Askey said in the release.

When school began this year, the release states, “only one county had a ‘substantial’ level of community spread. By the end of October, that number rose to 26 counties. For the week ending Nov. 6, 38 counties had that designation.”

Askey said it is “absolutely unacceptable for any school district to disregard the advice of medical professionals and scientists during a pandemic and put the safety of students, staff, and their families at risk. Temporarily pausing in-person instruction and transitioning to remote learning will allow students to remain on track academically without any risk to their health.”

None of Lebanon County’s public school superintendents responded Friday to a request for comment on the issue. (See their joint response Monday, below.) However, several politicians at the county and state level shared their opinions.

Republican County Commissioner William E. Ames is strongly against the measure.

“I oppose another closure, especially called for by union leaders!” he said in an email Friday morning. A 30-year veteran teacher and union member, Ames said unions “are way too powerful and unfairly interfere in our lives and the political arena.”

His Democratic counterpart, Jo Ellen Litz, said she’s OK with re-closing the schools “if our local schools are on board with this recommendation.”

Testing in Lebanon County “showed a high percentage of children tested were positive,” Litz said. “I understand that keeping the little ones safe is a high priority.”

Two local state representatives favor letting school districts make the call.

“While I recognize the absolute superiority of in-person education over remote learning, those decisions are best left to each individual school district,” said state Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102).

State Rep. Frank Ryan (R-101) agreed “the decision should be left up to each individual school district.”

“I do take the rise in cases very seriously but I am concerned that the prior closure merely delayed (the) inevitable that we’re dealing with now,” Ryan said. “I think it’s critical for each school district to use their best judgment based upon what’s happening in their district.”

“Through the course of this pandemic we have seen that a one-size-fits-all solution simply does not work,” state Rep. Susan C. Helm (R-104) said in a statement. “Blanket solutions have almost always caused more problems than they have solved.

“I believe that each school district should assess their own situation and make a determination for themselves. Each community is unique in the circumstances and levels of risk they face. To make decisions affecting 38 counties, and every school district contained within them, is to ignore the specific needs of each community. These types of decisions are best made at the local level, based on each school and community’s own unique situation.”

Lyndsay Kensinger, press secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf, said the administration supports county decisions on the matter.

Harrisburg has provided weekly updates on COVID-19 transmission rates “so they can use this information as a basis to determine instructional models for their schools during the 2020-21 school year” and provide a safe educational environment.

“We are seeing our highest numbers of cases since the pandemic began, and it is essential that people follow the mitigation efforts in place as we work to protect Pennsylvanians and that school districts follow the instructional models recommended by PDE and DOH,” Kensinger said. “We need Pennsylvanians to be united in wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, washing our hands and avoiding gatherings. It is only by working together that Pennsylvanians can prevent the spread of the virus.”

Lebanon County’s six public school superintendents – Arthur Abrom (Lebanon), Krista M. Antonis (Annville-Cleona), Philip L. Domencic (Cornwall-Lebanon), Gary Messinger (Northern Lebanon), Bernie Kepler (Palmyra), and Julia Vicente (ELCO) – issued the following joint statement Monday morning:

Each of us are aware of the recommendations from PDE and the DOH, as we receive the county transmission numbers weekly. Keep in mind that the numbers represent the county in totality and not the individual school districts. When we receive notification of positive cases in our buildings from the DOH, we conduct contact tracing efforts with the support and advice from DOH. When our individual schools reach a certain amount of positive cases, we switch from the in-person blended model to virtual instruction. This has occurred in many of our districts and buildings; sometimes multiple times. We will continue to watch the county transmission numbers closely, and consider the recommendations from PDE and the DOH as to the instructional model we should implement, but it must be looked at on a case by case bases, often by district and by building.

As Superintendents, we understand the great responsibility we have in creating safe environments for our staff and students. We are proud that in most every case of COVID we encounter, it has come from outside our schools. Our students and staff have done in incredible job following our Health and Safety plans, which includes mandatory face coverings by all in-person staff and students. Unfortunately, we will not be able to provide you COVID numbers per district as this could be a potential HIPPA or FERPA violation and the numbers change daily.

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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Jo Ellen Litz, and Frank Ryan were previously advertisers on LebTown. Ames Home Services is a current advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.

Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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