The resurgence of COVID-19 in southwestern Pennsylvania is adding to the headaches facing educators, including those in the various Armstrong and Indiana county districts making up White Township-based ARIN Intermediate Unit 28.
“The enormity of the implications was not expected,” IU 28 Executive Director James J. Wagner said Monday. “The requirement to wear masks is a significant new development, that has not been in previous guidances.”
Masks were supposed to be optional in areas that had entered the green phase of COVID-19 restrictions, but that changed on July 1 when state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine made facial coverings or masks mandatory whenever anyone leaves home.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health said that includes “all individuals while in school entities, including public K-12 schools, brick and mortar and cyber charter schools, private and parochial schools, career and technical centers, intermediate units (and) educational programming for students in non-educational placements.”
Six days later, as part of its first meeting in several months, the ARIN IU 28 board reorganized for the 2020-21 school year, re-electing Dr. Frank C. Prazenica Jr. of Freeport Area School District as board president for 2020-21 and Charles R. Glasser of Marion Center Area School District as its vice president.
Danielle L. Patterson of the ARIN office will remain the board secretary, Clifford A. Geary continues as treasurer and Gary Gushard Esq. of Tucker Arensberg PC remains solicitor with his monthly retainer remaining $100 and his hourly rate remaining $120.
The IU board also approved a Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan.
However, since it was outdated as soon as it was approved, “we will be submitting a revised plan” for the next IU board meeting on Aug. 18, Wagner said, one “that we probably will be working on that day.”
He anticipates “multiple directions coming out” from either the Department of Health or the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“It is not unusual to have one item coming out a week, from all sources,” the IU 28 executive director said. “PDE put out guidance based on the best knowledge they had on one given day, then we had the spike in southwestern Pennsylvania,” followed by what he termed “contradictory guidance” from the Department of Health.
Wagner echoed concerns that have been heard in local school board meetings, saying the mandatory masking “is especially challenging for many districts,” adding, “if you have a student (and) someone has indicated to that child that he cannot wear the mask, then how do you do the appropriate social distancing?”
There are exceptions for medical conditions, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, mental health conditions, or disability.
However, as Levine is allowing: “Individuals are not required to show documentation that an exception applies.”
Wagner said that is a huge concern. It could prompt one student to see a classmate not wearing a mask and wonder, “If he doesn’t have to wear one, why should I?”
Wagner said his job is relatively easy compared to what superintendents have to do in public school districts across the state.
For instance, he said, “there are many, many people in education who were not considering retirement before who are considering it now. There are not people in line standing to replace them.”
He said problems districts will face over the next 10 years in finding replacements “adds exponentially to the pressure” already created by the pandemic.
He also said districts across Pennsylvania have had a significant problem finding substitute teachers for the past 10 years.
“I have great concern about our ability to remain open if for no other reason than the shortage of substitutes that we have had,” Wagner said. “In the past when districts could not get substitute teachers, they would combine classes or have students report to the gymnasium.”
He wonders, for instance, if a district gets “a couple of sick staff members,” what substitute will want to step in?
Also at the July 7 meeting, the ARIN board authorized Wagner to submit an application to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency for a $90,000 COVID-19 Health and Safety Grant, that would provide up to $10,000 for each non-public school in Armstrong and Indiana counties.
It authorized the director to negotiate an easement sewer line across the property of Gerry and Donna Howard to facilitate construction of a link from the IU building to the White Township Municipal Authority sewer system.
It also authorized agreements for the 2020-21 between the intermediate unit and the Kiski Area School District to provide physical therapy services to eligible students enrolled there at a rate of $60 per hour; and to provide a licensed professional counselor to the Freeport Area School District at a cost not to exceed $83,885.83.
It authorized extensions to two agreements with Tri-County Workforce Investment Board Inc.
One, regarding career awareness, is being extended to Dec. 31, 2020, at a cost not to exceed $50,000.
The other, regarding youth services provided under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, is being extended to June 30, 2021, with the contract amount to increase by $8,313 to $16,626.