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Scores of Homer-Center School District residents and staffers logged on to the school board’s online meeting Thursday looking for some commitment on the future of face-to-face classes in the district during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parents, the operator of a day care center and others had concerns.

They got the commitment: board members and administrators held the district’s own Health and Safety Plan as the guideline for keeping the schools open.

Meanwhile district officials made clear that any guidance or recommendations from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, especially those expected across the state on Monday, would be seen as just that — guidance or recommendations — and not mandates or requirements.

Homer-Center’s plan calls for closing all in-school classes to cut off transmission of the novel coronavirus when the district has five or more active cases of COVID-19 among the students or staff. The district would move to 100 percent online learning for two weeks, until the students or teachers complete a period of quarantine and the active case level falls below five.

Last week, the district for a time listed two active cases on a “dashboard” feature on the Homer-Center website.

District leaders on Thursday put less faith in a set of anticipated state standards for setting “yellow” or “red” phases with hybrid learning or full online education based on the COVID-19 positive testing trends for the entire county.

Some districts responded in compliance with recommendations on Aug. 24 when Indiana County’s positivity rate fell between 5 percent and 10 percent.

But Homer-Center leaders pointed to the addition of 87 new cases of COVID-19 infection within the Indiana University of Pennsylvania community since the campus welcomed returning students in late August as a factor that skews the local totals and artificially escalates the Indiana County positivity rate.

Testing data in the Homer-Center School District area, found in breakdowns by ZIP code areas on the state health department website, show lower positivity trends that don’t indicate widespread presence of the virus in the district and don’t support a recommendation for full online instruction, officials said.

“I would remind the public that it’s only a recommendation, not a requirement,” Superintendent Curt Whitesel said. He said state officials told Pennsylvania school district leaders Thursday “that if your numbers are low or non-existent, they would have no problem with you continuing status quo. They’re just recommending that if the area continues to grow, there might be something that you want to consider.

“If anyone is familiar with our plan, you know that if we get over five cases in any of our buildings, we would close. But right now we have no active cases on our dashboard, so we should continue status quo.”

Whitesel and Elementary Principal Holly Rougeaux reviewed the safety practices being followed for kids on the playgrounds and assured online meeting viewers that the schools have adequate supplies of cleaning needs to keep high-touch areas sanitary.

Board member Michael Schmidt directly blamed behavior at IUP for inflating the area’s COVID-19 statistics.

“There are rumors that the Department of Education wants us to close and the Department of Health wants us to go online,” Schmidt said. “If our positivity rate is below 5 percent, we are eligible to stay ‘green’ and stay open. Between 5 and 10 percent, we’re supposed to be hybrid… and if it’s over 10 percent, we’re supposed to be 100 percent online.

“If you look at the data since the beginning of August … two weeks ago we were at 4.6 percent and doing very well. IUP came back Aug. 24, and the following week the county was at 5.6 percent. Last week we were over 10 percent. … So I expect the positivity rate to be way over 10 percent,” he said. “And it’s because IUP students, even though the majority of the university is online, a lot of those students are still living here. They may go to a lab class once a week. Or they have paid $11,000 for a lease for the whole school year so they’re living here even though they’re doing 100 percent online education. But their parties and social life is what’s blowing up the positivity rate in Indiana County.

“So unless you’re going to IUP parties, we’re not going to see that level of risk. And until we see a significant rise in the number of cases … until we get over five, which would be a leap … going 100 percent online won’t affect the positivity rate of Indiana County because we are not causing that. IUP is causing that. And there’s nothing the university can do about that.

“The only way that’s going to be fixed is if the students stop going to parties, and social distance and wear their masks like they’re supposed to be doing.”

The directors took few formal actions related to the status of live or online education connected with the pandemic.

The board approved the addition of three Act 80 in-service days for the current school year. Whitesel said that if the district reached the point of converting to full online learning, the schools would be closed for a designated Act-80 day for teachers to plan their digital instruction while students take a day off from classes. The others would be reserved for professional development as needed later in the school year.

The directors also authorized the administration to hire two long-term substitute teachers to serve in the elementary school until the end of the first semester in January.

The teachers would be assigned to conduct live online classes, known as synchronous education, for students in grades fourth through sixth. The school year began Aug. 31 with teachers in the fourth- through sixth-grade classrooms simultaneously conducting face-to-face and online instruction. The pay rates, governed by the teachers’ contract, weren’t discussed as the directors weighed the options to hire one or two long-term subs.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.