Clarion schools keep status quo

To go remote or not has been a question plaguing school districts in Clarion County since the number of COVID-19 cases has increased in recent weeks.

Count Clarion Area as among the districts that is staying with face-to-face, in-person learning – for now.

However, the school board members’ feelings on the issue were not unanimous during their meeting earlier this month.

Clarion board member Braxton White urged the board to consider switching the high school to fully-remote learning or a hybrid model.

White said the school district should be proactive in its approach to handling the COVID-19 outbreaks in the region.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education recommends school districts go to fully-remote learning if the district’s home county stays in the substantial range for two weeks or more.

Clarion County has since the meeting reached the two-week “substantial” status.

“My thought here is the guidelines put in place weren’t done by the Department of Education alone, that was created hand in hand with the Department of Health,” White said. “How long can we say we are working with the Department of Health when we are ignoring the guidelines they put together with the Department of Education?”

Board member Todd Macbeth disagreed with White’s assessment.

“It doesn’t seem to me like we are ignoring anything,” Macbeth said. “I think we are using our local data and applying that to our decision-making.”

White responded, “I think our local data shows we have a good argument to keep our elementary school open, but it’s hard for me not to recommend our high school take a break … when we consider how much the cases are growing in the county, when we consider this isn’t just a decision for us, it is a public health decision when we have one small hospital in this county of ours.

“The hospital incidents rates lag the data, the death rates lag the data. Hopefully it doesn’t get to that, but two or three weeks down the road we are going to wish that we would have made those decisions now to be proactive instead of reactive.”

Macbeth said having just two infected students in the high school did not warrant going remote.

White, however, doubled-down on his assessment.

“We are going against the guidelines of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Health,” White said.

“This isn’t the spring, when we probably didn’t need to shut down. We didn’t have an outbreak in Clarion County yet. We haven’t had one, but we are in one now. We have guidelines in front of us which map this out very clearly and we are ignoring them.”

The Department of Health moved Clarion County into the “substantial” infection category on Nov. 9. If the county stays in the substantial category for two weeks, the Department of Education recommends districts switch to fully remote or hybrid.

Board member Zachary Shekell questioned whether the state guidelines should be the lone factor in the decision-making process.

“(Superintendent Joe Carrico) had a meeting with the PDE and they set forth a number of community factors we are to consider specifically as our local district, and those guidelines you are referencing are not the only deciding factor for us to consider,” Shekell replied to White.

Board member Sara Robertson inquired of Macbeth as to what the rate of infection needs to be to switch to remote learning.

“I don’t know what that number (of infection) would be going up, but I know what that number is,” Macbeth said.

“Having two kids infected is not worth sacrificing the mental health of our kids. Our high school kids are experiencing some significant issues, and I know that. I feel badly for those two students that have (COVID-19), but to me that is not enough to put the hardship on the students in the school to shut it down.”

The board plans to reassess the situation at its regular board session after its reorganization meeting on Dec. 1.