Back when fears about the COVID-19 were at their fever pitch, just about everything ground to a halt. The quest for a return to normalcy has been long and arduous, and many nagging questions remain, one of the biggest of which is if schools will reopen for the next school year. This was a big topic for Westmoreland County’s School Board as well; it being a major subject during the board’s monthly meeting two weeks ago. 

“Superintendents of the school divisions were walking on pins and needles with this one,” stated the School Board’s Superintendent, Dr. Michael Perry, who went into more detail about what was going to happen.

“Local school divisions have developed plans if they are in phases 2 and 3. These plans include face-to-face instruction, which was not in phase 1. If you do that, then you have to have a plan and submit it to the state.”

The plans in question are a Health plan, which Dr. Perry indicated has to reflect the latest information from the department of health and the CDC, and an instructional plan. The health plan has to be turned in before school can begin in phase 2 or 3, and covers everything from masks to social distancing.

Instructional plans are due 15 days before school is to start at the absolute latest. This gives the division about a month before the plan has to be submitted, and there are lots of sub-points that need to be addressed in each plan as well.

“Given that the CDC guidelines indicate that transmission by contact with surfaces is a much lower risk than thought, will our cleaning schedules and processes reflect that, meaning we won’t have to do a huge deep clean every day?” Vice Chairman Dr. Wallace asked.

“Right,” Replied Dr. Perry. “We won’t be doing the deep clean every day, though we’ll do more than we normally would all the same.”

Dr. Perry continued: “One of the things that we’ll do to make sure our students take advantage of Governor’s School and our technical programs will be to use weekly alternating schedules,” Dr. Perry continued. “Half will be in school, half will be out of school, and the next week, we rotate. That’s one recommendation.”

When asked how such an arrangement would work, Dr. Perry stated, “We can’t really tell you how it’ll work, because we’re still working on it.”

Another potential area of trouble was transportation, with Dr. Perry noting that there had been a few provisions made for riding the bus and somehow maintaining social distance. Of course, family members could sit together, but otherwise masks or social distancing would be needed.

“One of the challenges, especially on buses, would be them actually keeping their mask on,” Chairman Ralph Fallin commented, prompting Dr. Perry to clarify a little more.

“It appears that they’re not requiring masks for students,” he explained, “masks will become equipment for employees, but the rule is social distancing. If you social distance, then you don’t need the mask. If we require the mask, we’ll probably have to buy them.

Another challenge, interestingly enough, was lunch schedules. As with transportation, somehow managing to keep students at a social distance is the main concern. Undoubtedly, a few will liken it to shoveling live flies from one end of a room to the other.

And of course, there’s social distancing with classrooms.

“Not all classrooms are created equal in size,” Dr. Perry commented, “and we understand this will create a lot of issues. We have a lot of work to do.”

Instruction also gets rather tricky, as back in phase 1, distance learning was the norm. Now, with us in phase 2, and likely moving on to phase 3, the idea now is to combine distance learning with face-to-face lessons. Dr. Perry indicated that the school division was able to make sure they have their tech bases covered.

“Thanks to the Board of Supervisors, we will actually have the equipment needed to do this, as yesterday they voted to allow us to order the equipment needed.” The equipment in question was over 600 wifi hotspots and 1,600 chromebooks.

The final concern, and certainly a large one, lies with contact sports, or rather, the lack of them. Dr. Perry explained why many sports would have to be axed for the time being.

“It appears that students will only be doing skilled practice, nothing that would involve intentional physical contact with one another, meaning contact sports are out as of right now. We still need more information, but that’s currently where we are.”

As mentioned before, the plan is for a mix of face-to-face and distance learning, but Dr. Perry has indicated that the division can go towards either method if the mixed approach proves too expensive or there is an upsurge in coronavirus cases.