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Schools to decide between remote learning or complying with state regulations

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Principal Michael Snedden welcomes students to York Suburban Middle School as they return for the first time in six months following the COVID-19 shutdown, Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Sixth and ninth grade students started a day earlier than the rest of the district due to moving up to bigger schools.
John A. Pavoncello photo

An order from Gov. Tom Wolf spurred criticism from a York County school official as Pennsylvania's COVID-19 cases continue to rise. 

As part of an announcement Monday, Wolf ordered schools in counties with substantial COVID-19 transmission to sign a form within a week agreeing to comply with the safety regulations or move to remote learning until their county does not have substantial spread. York County is one of 59 Pennsylvania counties with substantial spread. 

“All of us have a responsibility to slow the spread of this virus so our children can stay or return to the classroom,” Wolf said in a news release. 

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, substantial transmission is determined when a county sees more than 100 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, or when the county's positive test rate is above 10% over seven days. As of Tuesday, York County had recorded 9,978 COVID-19 cases, including 237 deaths.

More:223 new cases, two deaths related to COVID-19 in York County

Public school entities must sign a form complying with two state safety regulations, per Wolf's order. The first is to require masks for all students, staff and visitors inside school buildings, and the second is to comply with state recommendations for pre-K to 12 schools when COVID-19 cases are identified.

The recommendation states that when a high enough number of students or staff within the same school building report positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period, the school would close for 14 days, the entire building would be cleaned and school officials should consider decreasing the number of students allowed on site at one time.

The chief school administrator and head of the entity's governing board must sign the form by 5 p.m. Nov. 30, either agreeing to the safety measures or agreeing to move to a fully remote model. Failure to submit the form would mean the schools must move to a fully remote model and suspend all extracurricular activities. 

More:As York County smashes COVID-19 records, Wolf implements new restrictions

Several York County school districts, including York City School District, West York Area School District, Northern York County School District and York Suburban School District, are still considering what to do, officials said Tuesday.

York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams criticized Wolf's order.

"What it does is take local control away from the district," Williams said. 

York Suburban School District Superintendent Dr. Timothy Williams.  John A. Pavoncello photo

Williams' biggest issue with the order is that it requires his district to follow a recommendation on when to close schools following positive COVID-19 tests, he said.

York Suburban currently operates under a hybrid model. According to the district's website, the district recorded 14 positive COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days. But Williams said none of the reported cases has been traced to spread within school buildings. 

Williams said he talked with individual school board members and the school board president about what to do. The district hasn't decided yet, but he said he plans to do everything he can to make sure the district stays under a hybrid model. 

Northern York Superintendent Steve Kirkpatrick said that district's school board planned to make a decision on Wolf's order Tuesday night. He said he recommended the district sign the form so it can continue in-person instruction. 

"I am confident we can comply with the updated face covering order and school closure matrix, and feel it is in the best interest of our students and community to provide face-to-face instruction for as long as we can safely do so," Kirkpatrick said. 

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, has been a regular critic of Wolf's handling of the pandemic. The most recent guidelines, including those affecting schools, remind her of the popular 1993 film "Groundhog Day" featuring Bill Murray, she said, with local officials caught in a loop of reacting to ever-changing rules covering the same issues.

“With the constant shifting and changing just to reopen schools… The guidance has changed, I believe, eight or nine times,” she said. “And (school districts) are doing the very best they can under the circumstances. But it’s really difficult when there’s a lack of clarity and a sense of confusion.”

Reporter Logan Hullinger contributed to this story.