Central, Northeastern wrangle with reopening, mandates days before doors open

Central York School District Superintendent Michael Snell speaks during a special school board meeting at the high school Tuesday, January 21, 2020. The school board and Snell were presenting research and taking public comment regarding changing the start of the school day. Bill Kalina photo

Boards at Central York and Northeastern school districts on Monday both considered scrapping their earlier reopening plans for fully online models but ultimately backed down.

The scrambling came just days after the state released new guidance on school shutdowns for positive cases and the very day it clarified that masks must be worn at all times — even when distanced 6 feet.

"I'm becoming less and less enamored from a safety and security perspective," said Central Superintendent Michael Snell, of his district's in-person reopening.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Aug. 10 said communities with a moderate transmission rate — nearly all 500 of the state's public districts — should do a partial or fully remote learning model.

More:Schools get state guidance about handling COVID-19 outbreaks

Additional recommendations released Aug.13 call for a 5-day to 7-day shutdown for moderate-spread districts that also have two to four cases in one building, among other criteria.

Northeastern High School superintendent Dr. Stacey Sidle congratulates graduate Jared Holmes after presenting him his diploma, Sunday, May 31, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"We wanted to be transparent with our community," said Northeastern Superintendent Stacey Sidle, adding that the shutdowns do raise some continuity of education concerns. 

That's true especially since the decision to shut down a building could come "at 4 o'clock in the afternoon or 9 o'clock at night," she added.

And Snell said York County already has an infection rate of about 70 per 100,000 — which falls within the category of moderate spread — so he questioned the justification of letting 1,400 students into the high school.

Northeastern is scheduled to reopen on Aug. 27 and Central on Aug. 28.

Sidle also cited at least 62 classes that were not able to meet the 6-foot social distancing rule in her district — so students would have had to wear masks regardless, even without the recent mask update.

Parents were split on the subject, with those in both districts chiming in about the need to go virtual for safety reasons, or the need to keep schools open — for working parents, and concerns with mental health and learning styles.

Central board members Veronica Gemma and Kyle King fought for a reopening based partly on mental health, with King — on staff at the York County District Attorney's Office — saying overdoses have increased 200% since the outbreak began.

Kyle King

Both boards were eventually swayed by the promise of options — that families who did want to go fully virtual could still choose to do so for their safety.

Northeastern's board voted 9-0 to keep its plan for a full reopening with a cyber option, and Central's board voted 2-7 against going wholly virtual, with Joseph Gothie and Michael Wagner the only ones voting in favor.

More:Central school board punts on curriculum decision after controversy

Gothie's and Wagner's reasons were mainly based on a sense of inevitability and need for continuity of education.

Gothie said though the state has presented reopening as if it's a local choice, districts are ultimately being pushed toward going fully virtual with each new recommendation from the governor.

He drew comparisons to a scene in a Star Wars movie in which Darth Vader changed a deal with Lando Calrissian and said, "Pray I don't alter it further."

Northeastern board member William Gingerich echoed Gothie's support of parent choice, noting that "one of the decisions that we give to every family in the community is the decision for them to make it themselves."

But with the recommendation to go fully virtual, he said, that choice would go away.

"This whole thing has been totally politicized," said fellow Northeastern board member Eric Hornberger, blaming state and local governments for putting students in the middle.

Another board member from that district, K. Mike Redding, added that as a biologist he was struggling to find reliable data and sort through mixed messages from doctors and nurses.

"We get political data and not real data," he said.

A lack of strong leadership from the government puts administrators in a precarious position, he said.

Northeastern board members ultimately used the community as their guide, saying that they had been elected to represent them, and a strong case was made to include in-person learning as an option.

Government officials "passed the buck," said that board's president, Margie Walker, and there's no crystal ball for the pandemic.

"A day (in school) is better than nothing at all," Gingerich said.