Those that eagerly awaited the return to in-person learning can breathe a small sigh of relief. As of the time of this writing (and by the time this is published, assuming that there hasn’t been a spike in Coronavirus cases), students are able to head back to in-person classes at Westmoreland County’s public schools, albeit on a hybrid schedule. The decision was reached at last month’s School Board meeting, and would probably be compared by some to a kid tentatively dipping a toe in the water at a pool. As with the previous return to learn updates, the presentation by Superintendent Dr. Michael Perry also included the director for the Three Rivers Health District, Dr. Williams.

According to Dr. Perry, the data looked fantastic when compared to previous readings, with cases per 100,000 dropping like a brick from 700-800 to 258.

“We’re still in the red, but our numbers are coming down, and they are coming down precipitously,” he stated at the start of his presentation. “Our numbers, just like the rest of the nation, show that it’s come down a lot.”

New CDC guidelines also recommend that school districts can be in hybrid mode with the usual mitigation methods in place. While vaccinations are taking place for teachers, Dr. Williams stated that the shortages nationwide had forced them to take it slow with the vaccinations.

“Because of this, we had to take up a prioritizing system, starting with those most likely to be exposed,” Dr. Williams explained. “And as we got more vaccines, we would come back and complete the job.”

Presently, the only system in the health district that is vaccinated is Middlesex, owing to the vaccinating efforts being started there, though Westmoreland County was not far behind as of the time of the meeting. It remains to be seen how much of an impact the third vaccine will have. At the meeting, Dr. Williams also stated that despite the vaccines, behaviors would not be changing, stating that there were too many unknowns right now, both about the virus and the vaccine. 

“There are people that have been vaccinated that still caught COVID,” he continued. “What the vaccine does is downgrade it from something that could put you in the hospital to something more like a bad cold. Whether it grants immunity, or those that already had COVID can transmit it remains to be seen.”

Parents and teachers have been clamoring for schools to reopen, with many of them citing the slipping grades of children, as well as a drastic uptick in mental health problems and suicides. The debate is particularly ugly over in California, where a Teacher’s Union president was discovered sending his kids to a private school with in-person learning while the public schools remain closed. Some say that the risk to teachers is too much, while others say that students, especially younger ones, are poor transmission vectors for the virus.

The return to a hybrid learning model carried Dr. Williams and Dr. Perry’s recommendation as well. The School Board has authorized Dr. Perry to be able to return the school system to hybrid learning as he sees fit. It should be noted that while Westmoreland County’s public schools are going into a hybrid learning model, they are nonetheless cautious, and ready to jump back to remote learning if the virus’s numbers wildly spike again.