After first COVID-19 cases, school officials say opening was the right move

South Western Superintendent Jay Burkhart was not fazed Wednesday by his district’s recent confirmed case of COVID-19.

In fact, he still had full confidence that the board-approved hybrid plan — in which students attend school three days per week on an A/B schedule — will work.

“I know we had a setback today,” he said at a board meeting Wednesday night, following news of the positive case at the high school earlier in the day.

Dr. Jay Burkhart will be South Western School District's new superintendent starting in August.

But his comments, and those from the board and administrators, all came back to the fact that students were back — and they were happier than ever to be in school.

"I have never seen so many happy first day of school photos as I did on Facebook," said board President Vanessa Berger.

Administrators from multiple districts that have returned in person are reporting the same — that students needed this and are overjoyed to be back in their classrooms again, bolstering what has been a major argument for in-person return.

Spring Grove Area Assistant Superintendent Mary Beth Grove shared a story Monday of an elementary student skipping down the hallway, saying, "If she were to skip any higher, her head would have hit the ceiling."

“I feel like we are on the right path," Burkhart said.

More:Dallastown Area board rebuffs superintendent's recommendation against in-person classes

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

Some districts have opened buildings successfully in the past two weeks, with no confirmed cases of the virus that has caused a global pandemic.

"My favorite word now is 'uneventful,'" said Hanover Public Superintendent John Scola, whose district opened Aug. 21 to full-time in-person classes for K-4 and hybrid for others without a hitch.

Yet there are those who still question the decisions of York County districts when, two days after reopening, South Western already reported a confirmed case, and less than 24 hours after that, Northeastern reported a staff member had tested positive before students even set foot in its schools.

More:Northeastern confirms intermediate school staffer has COVID-19

More:South Western to split students, stagger school days

The first day back for students at Northeastern was Thursday.

The York Dispatch asked on Thursday at what point the state Department of Health would aggregate data into one place, if school cases should rise significantly.

Currently, notification is a local responsibility.

Students return to school for the first time in six months at York Suburban Middle School, 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

Department spokesperson Nate Wardle has said the department is continuously reviewing what data to share publicly.

When reached Thursday via email, he said officials are working with districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education on the best way to communicate increases for school-aged children.

"Obviously, it will take some time to link a case in a child to a school since there are different teaching models happening at the same time across the state," he said, but more details are coming shortly.

At South Western’s Wednesday board meeting, its teachers union mentioned the positive COVID-19 case as one of the reasons there were still some safety concerns with the district’s reopening plan.

Resident Michael Hoover questioned whether the district would cancel sports if more positive cases, or a state mandate, led to a shutdown, or if there were cases in schools to which district teams are traveling.

If the idea in going virtual is to protect students and staff from exposure, “continuing sports would belie that effort,” he said.

The school board on Wednesday approved an updated athletic health and safety plan, with most sports starting on Sept. 4 and competition only being among the 23 member districts and schools of the York-Adams Interscholastic Athletic Association.

More:PIAA approves start of fall sports season, practices can begin Monday

Hoover also questioned whether the recent COVID-19 case was a student-athlete, but to protect student or staff identity, officials could not reply.

Another resident also raised concerns that if an individual tested positive on Wednesday after having been in school buildings, it would have meant that he or she had willingly come to campus while awaiting test results — as results typically take several days.

Solicitor Gareth Pahowka said no one should come to school with symptoms present or likely to develop, as stated in the health and safety plan.