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COVID-19 forced Palmyra Area School District to shutter one of its elementary schools for several days this month.

“We have had to close a building for the first time this year,” district superintendent Bernie Kepler told LebTown.

Pine Street Elementary School was closed Dec. 1 through 4, he said –- the result of two positive cases among the staff and students there.

Pine Street was slated to reopen for in-person learning today.

“As per the new order, a small school (under 500 students) only needs two cases and is required to close between 3-7 days,” Kepler explained in an email. “Medium size schools (500-900 students) need 4 cases before closing and a “large” school (over 900 students) needs 6 cases to close.”

Small schools in Palmyra include Forge Road, Northside and Pine Street elementaries, while medium schools are Lingle Avenue Elementary and Palmyra Area Middle School. The high school is considered large.

In a notice sent out to district residents prior to closing Pine Street, Kepler said state officials had provided schools with a new order “pertaining to schools in counties where ‘substantial transmission’ of COVID-19 (is) evident. Lebanon County falls within the ‘substantial transmission’ range and the new order provides details on when schools will need to move to full remote learning.”

The notice stressed that “this is no longer a local decision, yet an order from the Commonwealth.” The district administration, staff and school board “must adhere to this new order.”

Kepler told LebTown that the district “had no major issues” moving to an all-remote learning model for the week.

“Although elementary is the greatest challenge, our teachers were prepared and have worked hard to have a smooth transition,” he said. “My office did not hear from a single family as a result of this four-day move to remote learning.”

Other school districts in Lebanon County report similar measures.

Superintendent Arthur Abrom said Lebanon School District developed a Health & Safety plan at the beginning of the school year.

“We follow this plan and review additional sources when selecting an instructional model,” he said. “Some examples of sources include county transmission data, information from the (Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), and recommendations from (the state Department of Education) related to suggested instructional models.

“For now, just as we started the school year, we are continuing in our hybrid model at all levels, which is a mitigation strategy for the reduction of full in-person learning,” Abrom continued. “We will pivot to full virtual instruction when a number of cases in a building warrants such, as local context much be strongly considered when making such an important decision. As evidence that we have already been following the recommendations, we have pivoted to full virtual instruction in three of our seven school buildings thus far this year.”

Read More from the Archives: Lebanon High School will temporarily move to virtual learning for all students

Annville-Cleona superintendent Krista M. Antonis said the district “is fully complying with the new requirements; however, at this time, we are still able to be fully in person for our learning, K-12.”

“We are continually monitoring cases in our district and will use all of the data to make the best decisions for the safety of our students and staff,” Antonis said.

Julia Vicente, superintendent of ELCO School District, said only that schools there are “following the latest guidelines put forth by the DOH.”

Cornwall-Lebanon spokeswoman Amy Wissinger did not respond directly to questions, but shared a link to an update from superintendent Philip L. Domencic on the district website. In it, Domencic noted that the high school has been providing “fully virtual instruction” because of “the high number of active cases” in the building.

As of his Dec. 3 update, the high school was also planning to resume in-person instruction as of today.

Most districts in Lebanon County provide updated COVID-19 statistics on their websites, several superintendents noted.

Northern Lebanon school superintendent Gary Messinger noted that current numbers are “hard to pin down.”

“Cases go on and then they come off, and other cases take their place,” he said. Also, he said, officials must walk a tight line between public transparency and HIPAA privacy laws.

New state guidelines “are definitely helpful” for districts, he said. However, he said, Northern Lebanon hasn’t had to put those measures into place yet.

The only time when the number of cases would have necessitated closing, Messinger said, was during Thanksgiving break – when schools were closed and being deep-cleaned anyway.

But, he stressed, the order “will be impactful. We will have temporary closures because of the numbers.”

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Tom Knapp

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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