'Nothing's normal': Schools prepare for another pandemic year

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

As schools enter their third year of the pandemic, they are still learning how to handle COVID — and updating their plans for the fall. 

“Nothing’s normal,” said Stuart Knade, chief legal officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “This is all bizarre.”

Knade said there were no specific restrictions or parameters to the plans, other than those the Pennsylvania Department of Education made. The department’s website states that the plans need to maintain health and safety for staff and students during and after school.

According to the state, each plan must be tailored to its district’s “unique needs” and must listen to the public's wants.

More:Northern York High School to host Satanic Temple event

More:COVID a persistent presence in York County as students return to school

More:York County prepares as monkeypox spreads across the state

The department gave a template for the districts to follow, including details about masking, social distancing and vaccine requirements. In practice, of course, the districts' plans vary widely.

Maggi Barton, the deputy press secretary for the state health department, said the state's health and education departments tell the districts to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American Rescue Plan Act had some input into the plan because the districts that submitted plans were made eligible to receive Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, Funds. Districts were allowed to use the funding to upgrade their ventilation systems and were required to review their plans “at least every six months” during the ESSER grant period, according to the state education department.

The plan has to be updated with significant CDC recommendations, and the community must be given enough time to weigh in.

Before COVID, Knade said, districts had health and safety policies. But when COVID hit, the state education department asked school districts to make plans specifically for COVID. The plans are different from the previous policies because they were made specifically for COVID and are easier to be modified as it changes, he said. 

The Dispatch emailed 16 districts about how they will prepare for COVID this year. Out of the 16 districts, three responded: York Suburban, with their plan; Dover Area, to say they will repeat what they did last year; and Dallastown, which sent over their plan shortly before it was approved. A few other districts have made their plans available online.

Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said it recommends following the CDC’s guidance, which was updated on Aug. 11. The new guidance came out a few weeks before local schools started.

The updated guidance said students should stay up to date on their COVID vaccinations and that sick students should stay home and test soon after symptoms appear. If they develop symptoms, they should wear a well-fitted mask in school and go home to get tested if testing isn’t available in the school. 

More:Whispering Wind Bear Spirit: Two journeys cut short on one night in York City

More:York County could lose nearly 4K teachers under Mastriano's plan: PSEA

More:Police urge parents to use caution before sharing children's school photos

The CDC no longer recommends screening testing to identify those recently exposed to COVID. If the schools do test, it should be on both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff and students. Quarantining is not required for those exposed to COVID except in high-risk areas. According to the CDC's website, York is currently at a low level of transmission, despite reporting daily case counts on par with the early days of the first omicron wave.

Federal officials also ended the Test to Stay program, which advised the use of rapid tests to clear students who'd been exposed to COVID-19 to remain in school. 

After quarantine, students should wear a well-fitted mask for 10 days. They do not have to test to end masking or quarantine.

The CDC said the schools should use optimized ventilation systems and maintain improvements to indoor air quality, clean surfaces at least once a day and provide hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable. School staff should continue promoting good hygiene and reinforce that students should cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing.

Schools should also make reasonable modifications for at-risk students, according to federal guidance, such as requiring masking in classrooms to protect those children. At-risk students should not be separated or segregated from other students. 

The following 11 districts and the Lincoln Intermediate Unit's plan already follow some of the CDC's new guidelines. All plans call for optional masking, to stay compliant with the CDC's guidelines and promote good hygiene. They will continue to monitor staff and students' mental and physical well-being. All districts also noted they maintain sanitization of heavily-trafficked areas. 

Back to school shopping woes at Walmart in York on August 3, 2022.

Southern York County School District's revised launch date for its Health and Safety Plan was June 17. The plan said parents should screen their children’s health at home. COVID vaccinations will remain optional, and the district is working with the state's health department and WellSpan Health to provide facilities for vaccinations. 

York Suburban School District renewed its plan on June 20. The district will continue “in a similar manner as has been done since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The plan also said masking is optional but the district will respond to state or federal mandates. 

West York Area School District approved its plan on June 21.  The district said staff will keep classroom doors open to hallways and corridors “as practicable." 

“Students and staff bring individual water bottles in place of drinking fountain bubblers; provide access to bottle fillers and/or sink faucets for water access,” the plan said. 

Spring Grove Area School District approved its plan on June 13. Staff will occasionally sanitize through fogging, or electrostatic spraying. 

South Eastern School District approved the review of its Health and Safety Plan on March 17. Masking is optional, but if it is mandated again, the school board will meet regularly to discuss the mandate and listen to the public's wants. The district will encourage using outdoor learning spaces and ensure ventilation systems are serviced and meet requirements. 

Eastern York School District modified its plan on Aug. 18. If masks are mandated again, the district will work to transition back into masking.

“As per CDC guidance of August 11, 2022, EYSD will not conduct contract tracing,” the plan said. 

It added that if a staff member or student develops symptoms, they will have to test and quarantine until test results are received. They also encourage families to report the results to the school nurse. 

Red Lion Area School District last approved its plan on June 16. Air dampers are open to provide more airflow. 

Dover Area School District last reviewed its Health and Safety Plan on March 15. The school will not provide COVID vaccines at this time. 

Central York School District’s Health and Safety Plan was reviewed on July 6. The district has been using MERV 10 filters since 2019. The filters trap a higher amount of particulates than the minimum the Environmental Protection Agency requires schools to use, the MERV 8.

The district will also provide vaccine information upon request and encourages using individual, refillable water bottles. 

Northeastern School District updated its plan on Aug. 1. Because the COVID vaccine is not required, the district will not promote or provide the vaccines. They encourage students and staff to bring in their own refillable water bottles. 

Dallastown Area School District was supposed to approve its plan revision on Aug. 18. The superintendent has the authority to impose a mask mandate on the campuses or transportation for 14 days. 

The district will consider providing a space for vaccinations for eligible families. 

More:Workplace deaths up 30 percent regionally, with York County recording most

More:Narcan distribution slated Tuesday at York City Hall

More:York-area nightclub owners trade Fat Daddy's for Banana Max

The Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, or LUI12, last reviewed its plan on March 1. 

After consulting with LIU12’s board president, the executive director may require masking if there is a “high” risk level of COVID. The director can make changes to masking, but the board will have to approve the change at the next meeting.  Students will also be able to resume helping clean the bathrooms, as they did before the pandemic. 

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism.