Blairsville High School 05

The scheduled start of the school year for the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District will be delayed by a week to provide more time for officials to prepare technology to livestream instruction.

In addition, the board will host a virtual town meeting next week, offering parents the opportunity to ask questions related to the upcoming year.

The meeting is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, and instructions on how to participate will be provided on the district’s website.  

The board voted at a special virtual meeting Wednesday to delay the start date to Sept. 8 from Aug. 31 after a discussion in which all members present voiced opinions on how to proceed with school amid a pandemic.

The new end date for the school year will be June 11.

School directors were prompted by board president Rick Harper to consider options including the current plan to bring all students back, to delay the start date, to provide virtual instruction only for the first nine weeks or to go virtual completely.

He called the issue the “biggest decision we’ll make.”

Speaking first on the issue, board member Holly Gibson, herself a teacher in a nearby district, acknowledged that no matter what the board decides, it “won’t be the best fit for everybody.”

She expressed concern for teachers, but said, in her opinion, children need to be back in school buildings.

“We need to have our kids in front of us,” she said.

As a teacher, she said, she is “scared to death,” but will trust her district to provide her with the tools she needs to stay safe.

She said she is in favor of person-to-person instruction, with the option for students to livestream classes.

Gibson and other board members in favor of person-to-person instruction cited the district’s recent survey of parents, which showed nearly 80 percent of those who responded wanted face-to-face instruction for their children in the fall.

Director Linda Brown said it’s her responsibility as an elected official to “listen to the people.”

“I’m their representative,” she said. “I will vote with them.”

However, she said ultimately that parents need to do what is best for their personal situations, and to not send children back if they feel it is unsafe.

“In the end, parents, this is your decision,” she said. “God bless you all.”

Vice President Molly Stiles said she has a child in the district she will be sending for face-to-face instruction.

She said children are social creatures and need the interaction, but noted the district does need to be prepared for a potential change from brick-and-mortar classrooms to digital instruction in the event of a shutdown.

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Stiles said.

She said she is in favor of bolstering the district’s virtual capability in conjunction with returning to the buildings.

Board member Beverly Caranese said the directors need to face the “reality that we have a pandemic, a crisis,” that is killing people. She said she is very concerned about that and is personally not comfortable with face-to-face instruction.

However, because of the results of the survey, Caranese said she feels she has to “respond in a way that allows parents to choose.”

She supported the reopening of the schools “with great reservation” and said she is concerned for the children, administration, teachers and other staff.

Director Anthony “Tim” Canzano said he was in favor of face-to-face instruction with the option to livestream, because of the survey results.

Connie Constantino was also in favor of in-person instruction with livestream options and said she would be sending her daughter to school in the district as well.

If teachers are concerned, she said, they should raise their concerns with district officials.

Harper said he was surprised with the results of the survey but would support face-to-face instruction with the option to livestream and suggested delaying the start of the school year by a week to allow for time for preparation.

Mary Whitfield agreed, saying she would like to see the district prepared for both options. She said pushing back the start date will allow the district to watch other schools and see how plans are working.

“I think we’re going to learn as we go in some regards,” she said.

Board member Holly Hall was absent from the meeting.

In the next few weeks, school officials will work toward finalizing plans to enable livestreaming of classes for students who will learn virtually, including teacher training and obtaining the necessary technology, some of which is already in place.

Outgoing superintendent Jeffrey Soles noted that many of the district’s teachers are already “Google certified,” meaning they have completed training programs for educators.

Harper said officials are looking into wireless “hot spots” for students, as some may have issues with internet access.

Caranese asked Soles if all classrooms will have students spaced 6 feet apart.

He responded that the district will social distance as best as possible, but schools were not built for that setup. Students will not be 6 feet apart, he said, but will be made to keep on masks or face shields.

The board briefly discussed discipline options regarding the use of face masks.

Harper warned that students who purposely take off masks just to antagonize could be disciplined.

The use of masks and other safety precautions will be issues the board will address next week after setting the special town hall meeting.

Regarding the meeting, community members should send questions via email to board secretary Alice Santoro at santoroalice@b-ssd.org or via a form that will be uploaded to the website, www.b-ssd.org. Instructions to log into the meeting will be published on the website next week.

Margaret Weaver has served as a Gazette staff writer since 2006. She covers Clymer Borough, the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District and Blairsville court, and also works in the areas of layout, design and editing.