At least six staff members and students at McKeesport Area School District (MASD) tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week alone.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) Website, two or more cases in a school building within a 14-day period call for some sort of closure to ensure the safety of students and staff.
So why are none of the district buildings closed?
The western Pennsylvania district located southeast of Pittsburgh reopened on a hybrid schedule on Sept. 2 with about a third of parents opting to keep their children out of the buildings and in the district-run cyber program.
Since then, finding concrete information about Coronavirus infections at our public schools – MASD or others – has not been an easy task.
Local newspapers only occasionally report on them and rarely put single incidents in context. Nor is there any government or other comprehensive database that collects this information and disseminates it to the public.
MASD school district issues alerts on its Website, but they do not stay up for long.
On Sunday, the Website noted:
“Across two of our buildings, Twin Rivers Elementary and the High School, we have had three positive cases of COVID-19 in teachers, and two positive results in students.”
Today that message has been replaced by another:
“A Founders’ Hall staff member tested positive for COVID-19.”
So that’s one case at Founders Hall and five spread out between the High School and Twin Rivers Elementary School.
Though in both cases, the district Website claimed, “We have worked directly with the Allegheny County Health Department and consider this case to be contained,” it is telling that the district obfuscated about exactly how many cases were from each building.
According to PDE, this is a key factor in determining whether a building should remain open. In a county like Allegheny where infection rates are designated as moderate, if 2-4 students or staff in the same building test positive, the school should be closed for 5-7 days.
So either the high school, Twin Rivers or both should meet that criteria.
And if cases rise even slightly, the PDE Website recommends even longer closures – at least two weeks for five or more cases in a building.
Sunday’s alert noted: “You will be notified directly by the Allegheny County Health Department if there has been any close contact to your student!”
On September 15, a letter was sent home to parents saying that a Founders’ Hall Middle School student tested positive for COVID-19.
The letter further stated that the student would quarantine for two weeks.
District spokeswoman Kristen James said there would not be any closures of school facilities as a result of the incident.
“Our buildings are being deep cleaned each and every day and throughout each day,” she said.
COVID-19 has also plagued nearby Serra Catholic School.
The parochial school serving students from many of the same communities as MASD has suspended football practice and closed its doors twice before for COVID outbreaks.
On Oct. 12, a “person involved with the [football] team” tested positive, and 40 athletes and football staff were quarantined.
Just a month earlier, on Sept. 10, two Serra students tested positive, resulting in temporary suspension of the sports program and building closures.
Just last night, Baldwin-Whitehall school board voted to close three elementary schools for the rest of the week due to a substitute teacher who tested positive and worked in all the buildings.
“Over the last two weeks, we’ve reported 2,000 news cases of COVID-19 among school age children,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, state Department of Health secretary.
Gov. Tom Wolf cautioned, “The fall resurgence is here and now is really the time to double down.”
However, many decision makers don’t seem to be heeding these warnings.
And not just those in McKeesport.
At Steel Valley School District, buildings have been closed to students, and instruction has been 100% virtual.
However, buildings were opened just twice to students – both times for transition days. And both times, a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 soon after.
On Oct 7, a letter issued by Bryan Macuga, Secondary Campus Principal, said that a high school teacher tested positive. The day before, the district had students in grades 5 and 9 in the middle school-high school complex for a half day schedule to test the district’s wi-fi.
Though the teacher had participated in the program, he had not been within 6 feet of students for 15 minutes at a time – PDE’s definition of close contact.
On Sept 8, students in the same grades were in the same building for a half day transition program, and a middle school teacher who had participated in the program tested positive for COVID a day later.
School directors are actively considering moving from the virtual schedule – where no one has gotten sick – to a hybrid schedule in November.
But shouldn’t we be making decisions with a priority on student and staff safety?
If people die or contract lingering life-long complications as a result of COVID-19, they will not thank you for keeping buildings open longer than was advisable.
It’s time for decision makers to take off the rose colored glasses and make the tough decisions in everybody’s interests.
While infection rates are moderate to high, school buildings should be closed and all instruction virtual but created by district teachers, not ed tech companies.
It’s something we can all accomplish if we and our representatives just have the courage to do it.
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