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Two weeks of 100 percent at-home learning for Indiana Area School District students will end as planned Monday with the resumption of in-school classes for students as assigned.

The school board has unanimously affirmed the plan announced Nov. 19 by Superintendent Michael Vuckovich, who ordered the buildings emptied for 16 days for sanitization following a high number of active cases of COVID-19 among the staff and student body.

The Thanksgiving break and three Saturdays and Sundays account for most of the closing.

Students will have attended online classes for six days during the pandemic-related shutdown and, according to Vuckovich, the number of cases should be reduced to zero by Dec. 7.

When the schools reopen, kindergarten through fifth-grade students will return to in-school classes five days a week, sixth-graders will have classes in school four days a week and learn at home one day, and seventh- through 12th-graders will attend in-school classes two days and have at-home instruction three days.

State officials early last week gave school districts two choices for helping to halt the spread of coronavirus, and although board President Walter Schroth alone was empowered to sign papers committing the district to one of the options — called an attestation — he said he wanted it to be an open decision.

“Based on the order from the governor and the Department of Health, I felt uncomfortable signing that order without some public discussion as well as getting approval from the board,” Schroth said. “Everything that we do here, that I must sign, has to have some kind of board approval and I feel this was not the time to deviate from that,” prompting a special meeting Monday evening.

As Vuckovich described it, the district’s established health and safety plan amounted to a compromise between options given by the state. The district was asked to agree to state orders for use of face coverings in the schools and abide by a formula for periodic closings of schools to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Failing to agree to those steps, the schools would be forced into 100 percent at-home learning and cancellation of all extracurricular and sports activities until the community transmission rate in Indiana County falls below the “substantial” rate of 10 percent for two consecutive weeks.

That rate, the number of positive tests out of all tests for the virus, has exceeded 30 percent in Indiana County for most of November.

“We’re in substantial, and we have been there for quite some time and I don’t know if we’ll get out when you look at the current rates across the county,” Vuckovich said.

While the board agreed with the superintendent’s recommendation to continue requiring masking of students and staff at all times, even when socially distanced, and to abide by the formula for closing schools, Vuckovich said the plan already in place for Indiana is stricter than the state’s plan. The state plan calls for a closing of three to seven days when the number of cases reaches between two and four students in a school with an enrollment of 500 or fewer students.

Indiana’s formula matches that, as it applies to the four elementary schools. Ben Franklin Elementary has 412 students, far below the 500 threshold.

The state plan, however, requires no closings unless four to six cases of COVID-19 are known among the students and staff of schools with 500 to 900 pupils.

Vuckovich said Indiana Area, however, is more conservative than the state and would also convert to at-home learning for students in the junior and senior high schools, both with more than 500 students, when as few as two to four people test positive for the virus.

Longer closings of 14 calendar days would be required for a building when the case level reaches five or more.

Without exception, school board members supported the more stringent standards as recommended, and several coupled with their comments an appeal to people of the Indiana community to take steps to stop the spread.

“I want to plead with our community to follow the recommendations, no matter what you think of them,” board member Tamara Leeper said. “There are people walking around without masks and this will lead us to closure. Our students have to follow the rules and our adults should, too.”

“I think we should stay the course,” director Cinda Brode said. “We have done a good job so far. Our administration needs congratulations. And the students need to know what a good job they have done and how important it is to keep on doing it. … I hope adults will follow their lead so everybody can stay in school.”

Director Barbara Barker charged district residents with making sure that the schools aren’t closed again.

“This was not because of the spread in the schools but from what students and their parents do outside of school,” Barker said. “I’m asking each one of you to go home, make sure your neighbors know that if the community does not take this seriously, the schools will close again.”

Schroth suggested that the district has some wiggle room for COVID-19 cases before the winter holiday break presents another opportunity to recover.

“Ultimately our goal is to get our kids back in their seats in their classes and keep them there as long as we can.” Schroth said. “In the short term, we really need to sprint toward Dec. 18, the Friday before Christmas. The break starts the following week and that could provide another 14 to 17 days including weekends when we could be remote or off for the holidays.”

Simultaneous with the board and administrators’ remarks in the meeting, some parents and teachers among the 75 spectators to the online session offered their praise to school nurses and special education teachers in their text comments in a chat window.

Vuckovich said that although the schools would return to the overall mixture of at-home and in-school learning that began Sept. 8, parents still have the option to keep their children out of the buildings for synchronous or asynchronous at-home classes.

He also acknowledged that the district’s need to quarantine some students, as identified through contact tracing in a bid to curb the coronavirus from the schools, has been inconvenient for families who want their children to continue taking in-school classes.

The only exception to the current plan for 100 percent at-home learning is the decision to resume in-school education of at-risk students with individual education plans (IEPs) as early as Wednesday.

In a closing public comment period, district resident Ashley Clouser choked back tears as she told the school board of the importance of keeping her special-needs child on a consistent schedule of classes with the same teachers in the same rooms every day.

“In the spring when remote learning occurred, my son has autism … it did not go well,” Clouser said. “He had to be hospitalized for two weeks for behaviors that he developed because of the inconsistency and lack of routine.

“I don’t use my son’s school district as a day care or a babysitting service. My son needs to be in school, and this meeting tonight has given him the ability to be able to succeed in his education by being in the classroom. I am extremely appreciative of Mike (Vuckovich) and Justin Zahorchak (district special education coordinator) and for Jackie Bartolini (special education teacher), everyone who has been advocating for those at-risk students to have their opportunity.”

Vuckovich reminded board members and spectators that the district is liable to revert to all at-home learning once more if COVID-19 caseloads increase.

“We have to be honest and realistic that there could be another closure, based on the number of cases we have,” he said. “If we want to stay open, we have to stick with the plan we have developed. This attestation requires us to do that. I was called a lot of names; I was called a coward (when he ordered the shutdown). We have to protect our students and our staff.

“I don’t know what the future holds … but I will follow the same decision-making. It’s important to be transparent and that we are going to follow our plan.”

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.