South Western, Northern York plan to return more students to classrooms

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
South Western High School in Penn Township, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

South Western School District and Northern York County School District are planning to join the list of local districts expanding their in-person instruction models. 

The South Western school board voted 6-3 Wednesday to bring grades six through 12 back to four days of in-person instruction per week starting March 4. Northern York County Superintendent Steve Kirkpatrick announced in a letter Wednesday that his district was also considering bringing grades seven through 12 back to class four days a week effective March 15.

Kirkpatrick did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment about when the district board might vote on the plan. 

At least three other York County school districts recently voted to expand their in-person instruction effective in February or early March as the number of new COVD-19 infections have declined locally.

Students from South Western and Northern are currently taught in a hybrid model with in-person instruction two days per week. South Western students were originally scheduled to switch to the four-day model March 24. South Western Superintendent Jay Burkhart said he proposed the earlier date because COVID-19 cases are dropping within the district and the surrounding area.

He said South Western has recorded eight positive cases across all buildings in the month of February. According to its COVID-19 dashboard, the district has recorded 88 total cases since the start of the school year. 

Northern York County does not have a COVID-19 dashboard available on its website, so its number of active COVID-19 cases is not clear. According to another letter released Tuesday, Northern High School has recorded at least four positive cases in the last 14 days. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, York County had recorded 35,447 total COVID-19 cases and 713 deaths linked to the disease. The county remains in the state's "substantial spread" category, which is the highest level of community spread. 

South Western's four elementary schools already have students back in the classroom five days a week. Northern York County's K-6 students also attend class five days per week. 

Kirkpatrick said that along with grades 7-12, sixth grade students would also switch to the four-day model according to the plan, having Friday as a remote learning day. South Western students would use Wednesday as a remote learning day. 

More:Three more die due to COVID-19 in York County

More:Southern York schools to move K-8 students to all in-person classes

Burkhart said people entering school buildings are encouraged to wear double masks. South Western High School Principal Keith Downs said the high school tries to keep students 6 feet apart as much as possible, but sometimes that is impossible in crowded classrooms. It will be more difficult to enforce social distancing if the school reopens further, he said. 

"You're probably looking at 2 or 3 feet max," Downs said.

Parent Phillip Diener opposed the proposal during the meeting. He argued that rushing the reopening plan was dangerous when most teachers still cannot access the COVID-19 vaccine. 

"You can't replace a Pennsylvania teacher," Diener said. 

Burkhart acknowledged that public opinion on schools reopening was split but said he is confident that the proposal will be safe with COVID-19 cases dropping regionally. He said the district will continue to follow the attestation form it signed in November, and will temporarily close school buildings if enough cases are recorded within a 14-day period. 

"It's going to be as safe as it's going to be to bring them back this year," Burkhart said.