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Take Note: State College School District Officials On Returning To School In Time Of COVID-19

Students outside of State College Area High School on Jan. 8, 2018.
Min Xian

School districts across Pennsylvania are finalizing plans for reopening classrooms and teaching students remotely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. WPSU's Anne Danahy spoke with State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O’Donnell and school board President Amber Concepcion about how that district is preparing for the fall.


Anne Danahy: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. School districts across Pennsylvania are finalizing plans for reopening classrooms and teaching students remotely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Joining us to talk about how that's being handled in State College are State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O'Donnell, and school board President Amber Concepcion. Bob O'Donnell and Amber Concepcion, thank you both for joining us.

Bob O'Donnell: Thank you.

Amber Concepcion: Thank you for having us, Anne.

Anne Danahy: Governor Tom Wolf's administration just issued further guidance to school districts and the state is telling districts whether your counties considered a low moderate or high-substantial risk for community transmission. And Centre County is low now, but it was moderate. And this means the state's recommending that you continue with this in person or blended learning. Bob O'Donnell from where you're sitting, does this change anything about the planning?

Bob O'Donnell: Well, we did just receive that information yesterday. We're working through that with our health and safety team professionals. You know, we've spent the whole summer working on developing our comprehensive safety plan. You know, when you look around the state at the plans of school districts, you see a lot of plans that are six or seven pages in length. Ours is 72 pages and it was developed with with input from medical professionals and scientists. You know, I'm not aware of any superintendent that I know that can pick up the phone and make a phone call to an internationally known epidemiologist and have them pick up the phone and, and they'll know me by name and be willing to help. So we feel very fortunate to have developed our plan with the team that that has helped us.

Anne Danahy: What do you mean by cut point? If I could just jump in.

And, you know, obviously, that same team will help us monitor as we head into the fall, the status of our community. I've been in communications with Penn State leadership regarding collaboration around sharing information so that, you know, what they're seeing with their testing plan is able to be known by us so we can understand what's happening in the community and be able to make a change or pivot if we have to. With that said, we've been having discussions with the team and our board regarding — Is there a clear metric to foresee a cut point, you know, what does that look like?

Bob O'Donnell: Yeah. So is there a data point is there a percentage of tests that have been carried out that are positive that would cause you to say, Hey, cut close the buildings, just to remote so a more foreseeable. Our plan has four different variables in it that we'll watch, including, you know, if students or employees are identified, or what the case counter in the community, you know, as well as how we get staffing if, you know we have a bunch of staff that are quarantined, or, you know, how are we going to staff buildings? If If that's the case, you know, there's some unknowns. You know, right now, we know, a lot more than we knew in June when we started developing an updated plan.

Anne Danahy: Yeah, there are a lot of unknowns. I mean, Centre County, is considered a having a relatively low number of cases. But you mentioned working with the Penn State team and getting a lot of the expertise there. But kind of on the flip side of that, is there is this concern or questions about whether when Penn State gets back in full swing for the fall, you've got tens of thousands of students coming in and whether that's going to lead to an increase in in cases. How do you plan for that possibility, that that those numbers that are relatively low right now in the community that they could change?

Bob O'Donnell: That's why we were collaborating and develop these relationships with our safety team. And, you know, the epidemiologist who has been most involved is Maciej Boni, and another epidemiologist, Matt Ferrari who's collaborated with us is heading up a lot of the planning at Penn State. So looking to them for their expertise regarding what evidence they're seeing of the virus or spread in the community is important. There's no doubt the students in the dormitories at the university or apartments aren't in our homes, however, they're in the same community. So trying to understand how is that impacting the overall community is part of our conversations and making decisions on how how we can manage that. Boni has spoken about having a flexible monitoring of that so that we can pivot at any time.

Anne Danahy: Amber, from your point of view as a community members, school board president, is that a real concern that the numbers are relatively stable right now, but that that could change significantly, and the school district is starting going back to classes the same time Penn State's going back?

Amber Concepcion: Yeah, I think it's a real challenge because, you know, we're looking at the Governor's advice and the advice of epidemiologists around the country. When they are giving advice on schools regarding what the data in their community that they should be looking at to make decisions about reopening the population we have now. Where we're getting the data from is not the same population that we're going to have a week and a half from now, when students start moving back onto campus. So, you know, it does put our district in a really unique position in terms of being able to make sure that we have the data that we need to make the right decision about reopening. And I think, you know, I would just go back to emphasizing the same thing Dr. O'Donnell did that we're going to need to be keeping an eye on the numbers coming out of Penn State, you know, very carefully to be to be sure that we make the right decision to pivot at the right time, if that's necessary.

Anne Danahy: Right. So Dr. O'Donnell, you mentioned these four variables. Are there specific numbers like OK, we'll have X cases in the school system, if we reach X number, then we're going to go back to remote learning versus in person.

Bob O'Donnell: You know, we don't have an explicit number, I mean, because even if you had a small number of cases, however, your contact tracing say it identified that it was transmitted in a building that would cause a real concern. And I think we would move more quickly than if we knew a student came into a building and had been tested positive. However, the contact tracing showed that they didn't come into close contact with other students and that they were masked the entire time. So I think it depends, really on what we identify through that contact tracing. And that would be key.

Obviously, if we're in a situation where where we don't know the answers to those questions, I think we would defer to making a safer decision assuming the worst, but I think it really depends on what we learn regarding those cases. And obviously, as they said earlier if it's a transmission that happens in school, that's that's obviously a major concern.

Anne Danahy: In the district parents had the option of in person learning, remote learning or going totally online with this Virtual Academy, and about 70% are opting for in person. Amber, was that surprising at all such a high percentage?

Amber Concepcion: Well, from the conversations I've had with parents and the community, you know, before the decision was made by parents, I don't think it surprised me too much. I've, you know, certainly many people are really feeling a lot of fatigue with the current situation of not having had school, you know, in person since the early March. I think there's, you know, certainly a concern by many parents that they want to get their kids back into classrooms and seeing their teachers face to face, you know, to have the best quality instruction possible. So I wouldn't say it's a surprise I think parents are probably also looking at the low infection numbers in Centre County and hoping that we have a period of time where it's safe to be in school.

Anne Danahy: Did the district at all consider just going totally remote? Because that would eliminate any of these risks. Was that an option on the table?

Bob O'Donnell: Well, right now and it's built into the plan, you know, we can move to remote at any time. As far as did we consider shutting down? We're obviously watching, you know, our community. Obviously, if we were seeing high levels of the virus right now, we'd absolutely be talking about that. When you look at our plan and how parents responded, you know, with the six feet distancing that that we've put in place with this flexible model with remote and in person — which has its challenges as well. And then obviously responding to to the registrations and the parent responses, then we had to implement our staffing model accordingly. You know, we're looking at less students in classrooms. You know, and in high school, we'll have less than 40% in the building at any one time than what we had last fall and in in secondary, excuse me in elementary schools, you can see the percentages how how it shakes out at the classroom level and on average the number of students in a classroom, primary grades will be lower, we're looking at about 13-14 students in a class, some lower, some a little higher. And then we're looking at three to four students that would be in an online Zooming in so to speak, remoting into those classrooms. So all of our K-2 classrooms have two adults in them right now that's where we stand but you know, the focus right now for us with decision making and safety you know, continues to have to be what's, what are we going to see with this virus, as Amber said earlier, our population will change you know, we know will increase by about 40% people coming to this area from outside the area. And although Penn State has a, you know, very robust plan, we don't know how that's going to impact the community. So you know, that's that's why the safety team needs to continue to be part of, of what we're working on so that we truly understand it in real time to make make informed decision.

Anne Danahy: Yeah, I want to get back to some of the logistics of in school. But before we do that,  kind of just finish going back to the topic of: At what point do you say like, OK, we're going to need to shut down this classroom or this school building or the whole district because like you said, the district has a strong plan. Penn State has its plan. But then there's the human behavior, which you can't always control, all of  the variables. So at what point would you say OK, in this, if a teacher has it or if a student has it, it becomes clear that it's being transmitted within the school. Do you shut down the classroom to it? Does everybody get tested? Do you shut the whole school district down?

Bob O'Donnell: If a person has it and again, if it's transmitted in the building we're we're gonna be making decision to shift to remote more quickly than if someone is tested positive and we learn that they they didn't transmit or contract the virus in our building. So I think it really depends on those things. We'll be collaborating with our team will be collaborating with the Department of Health because that's a key aspect of this because we may learn from the employee or from the family but we you know, we may also learn from the Department of Health about a positive test so yeah, I think we have to take each of the variables, immediately circle up and until we know the answers, Yeah, we may take a classroom and shift to remote. Would it be the classroom or the school again? I think it depends on on what we're learning: Is it one person, is it multiple people? As you know, as it people in different classrooms obviously, the more concern we have the the quicker we would move to shifting people to remote. And that, you know, that would be something we could do rather quickly because of our approach to the ED model, the experience in the classroom, the structure. We can go to remote at any moment.

Anne Danahy: Do you know how that would work, logistically, if there were a teacher or students in the classroom, will all the other families get notified?

Amber Concepcion: We're working on a contact tracing protocol to ensure that, you know, anyone who has been exposed to a potential case is being notified and asked to quarantine when appropriate,.

Anne Danahy: Because I imagine I mean, I've seen the discussion boards on Facebook and other places, there's a lot of really strong opinions about about what the district should be doing and how it should be handling it. Do you feel like along with coming up with some of these logistical plans for all these different scenarios, you also have to try to address parents and families concerns.

Amber Concepcion: Absolutely.

Anne Danahy: Yeah. I mean, is that is that pretty challenging?

Bob O'Donnell: I mean, Anne you know, there are people looking at this with extremely different perspectives and beliefs on what we should be doing and desires for their children. And so, yeah, I've never felt like I've been in such a lose-lose situation in my career. And I think our role is to continue to focus forward on making sure that our safety plan and how we respond to concerns involves collaborating with people that have much more professional training than than I do. But also if we're unsure of the circumstances, you know, we will defer to safety. You know, when we get two meteorologists giving us different forecasts, and one of them has ice, you know, last thing I want to do is have all our families and buses on the road on ice. And I know this is a much more, you know, significant situation than that. But we have to defer to the safety of our of our school community. If there's a situation where we have information that that causes concern and we don't have it figured out, we'll have to hit the pause button until we do.

Anne Danahy: If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. Today we're talking with State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O'Donnell and school board President Amber Concepcion about how the district is getting ready for the upcoming school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

So one other logistical question on that testing friend, so if a student or a teacher whomever staff member does have it, are they required to notify the district or how does that work?

Bob O'Donnell: Well, the Department of Health has told us they will notify us. But no, I mean, obviously, you know, we can't require someone to release their medical records to us. I really believe that we'll have cooperation from the vast majority of people who are getting tested. I mean, we have had several employees this summer tested and they've shared their results with our HR office. So now that it's been very collaborative to date, obviously, we haven't been open, so to speak with a lot of people in buildings. So it is change, no doubt and although we expect people to be collaborative, we also for those who don't want to collaborate with our, with sharing, then then we will have the the Department of Health letting us know if we if we do have a case in the building.

Anne Danahy: From an educational standpoint, I imagine it'll be challenging for teachers. So they're supposed to stand at the front of the classroom, right? And they're not supposed to get within six feet of the students. How are the teachers getting ready for that? How, how is that figuring into all the planning?

Bob O'Donnell: Well, there's some faculty that are working on you know, updating our approach right now. Because we can't go in with the same expectations, you know. So, when you when you think about the quality of the experience, you know, there's no doubt I wish we were doing what we were doing last August at this time. And we were planning for, you know, being in school and having the ability to respond to students in a manner that's significantly better than where we are now. What we learned in the spring is why cyber education does so poorly because students don't log on or, you know, our participation of secondary students wasn't where, where any of us wanted it to be, you know, an elementary students even in mid or late May, I was in a second grade classroom and, you know, managing young students in an online environment is really difficult. It's really difficult. And when you're managing remotely, it's a real challenge. The board did approve a software tool that's going to allow teachers to actually support students in a technically hands-on manner with software and the tools they're using this year. Sure, we'll see some improvements, no question.

In the remote piece, to look at a student to see if they are engaged, are they are they on their phone? Are they are they awake? Are they out of bed? You know, it's it's really different when you're in person, and I'm not suggesting wearing masks and being distant in a classroom is ideal, because it's not. But we we obviously, you know, have the in school option and our families to a high degree of desired it for their kids. When we look at the state of young people and listen to what the pediatricians are seeing in our community. You know, we obviously would love to have students in school and we want to do it as long as we can be safe.

Anne Danahy:  So there've been reports of and studies on the so-called  COVID slide. And that's researchers looking at students, where they normally would be ending the spring and then coming into the fall and it looks like in a lot of cases that they're significantly behind in both reading and math. And some of the studies have found that it's not uniform. Not all students are as equally as behind, but a lot of times they've slid. Is that something — now one other thing that the district has to work in so the teachers normally would be ready to start in a certain spot at the beginning of the year, maybe have to do a little bit of backup work, but now they have to retrace their steps.

Bob O'Donnell: Absolutely. I mean, we're asking a ton of our faculty. We are, and you know, what we need to do is just be patient, look to them for decision making based on what they're seeing with kids and whether it's backing up or talking to the prior teacher or just in curriculum. You know, we're working to ensure we have the collaboration time for faculty to work together so that they can share what they're seeing what their struggles are, what's working, what's not. We have what's known as, which is part of our elementary and secondary worlds Professional Learning Community time where teachers are working together on a regular basis each week. And that collaboration we think is more critical than ever. And if you see in our remote plan, you know, if we happen to have buildings closed, we actually take Wednesdays to prioritize that experience because they won't be in buildings together. And we think that's critical to helping support, support our faculties decision making to be as agile as possible, but I don't think any of us are are expecting our teachers to have a script because none of us have ever been through this. And we know some students in the spring did not have a very valuable learning experience for a variety of reasons. And so I don't think we can go into this year thinking we're going to be on par with last August.

Anne Danahy: Amber, is that what you're hearing from teachers and parents?

Amber Concepcion: Anne, I think this you know, this is going to be a national issue. Not just here, I think schools are going to need to be thinking about this, not just this year, but for the next couple years. As there may be, you know, interruptions and schooling related to this disease until we really get the pandemic under control, they're probably really needs to be planning on remediation for students who fall behind during this period of time. And so I think that we need to take a long term lens on this for students who are in high school now and getting ready to graduate they don't have a long time to, for us to do the best we can for them, but certainly for our younger learners, we need to be thinking about this issue in the long term and how these interruptions can be ameliorated to the extent possible. I think it's also important to realize that there's the effects of the school interruptions are not going to affect all families the same. Some families will be more or less able to supplement or support their child's learning when they're home or not, you know, able to be in school. So we really need to be sure that we're identifying, you know, where there's extra supports that are needed.

Anne Danahy: But I imagine this is a financial challenge for the school district too. Are there certain revenues that you're that you're losing or extra costs that you're bringing on. I'm just thinking of busing and cleaning costs.

Bob O'Donnell: Anne, we are in a tough spot. I mean, we're, you know, we have a smaller budget than last year, but we've had certain costs go up — healthcare, and we're working to prioritize as best we can. We've made some cuts in areas that are away from kids. Thankfully, we have parents willing to help us out with transportation. So right now we haven't had to go to our board and, and and tell them we either can't bus or we need more buses. And so we feel fortunate in that department of people pitching in to help make this a go.

You know, as far as prioritizing supports for students, we've talked about it before too, support from the board through the discussions, even though they haven't taken an action that if we close buildings, there's a strong desire from our lenses, the administrative team, but also from Amber and the board, that we need to have a plan in place for unique student populations that really need to be in schools. Whether it's students with special needs, such as special education services, students who are learning English as a second language, students receiving reading specialist title support known as Title One services, as well as students and family, young students from families where both parents really have to work. You know, if you look at a kindergartner and there's not a parent or an adult or an older sibling at home, helping them to engage in that remote experience, that's really difficult. So that's a lot that I just said there and we have capacity concerns if we can't require employees to be in to work with those students. But we think that's that's got to be a high priority if our buildings are open we really need to be responsive to the needs of those  students. Otherwise, the earlier conversation with three of us about slide, so to speak, will only grow in the wrong direction.

Anne Danahy: There have been a lot of pictures online in schools where mass apparently are not required. And that's raising a lot of red flags in State College School District. Everyone needs to wear a mask when they're in the school buildings. Are there questions about how, if a kid for whatever reason, decides they can't wear their mask anymore takes their mask off? And because we aren't talking about little kids, or even teenagers. How do you handle that?

Bob O'Donnell: Well, we we have a pretty strict line in the sand and students if they want to be in our buildings, then they need to have their masks on. Our administrative team and myself, we're gonna have a real difficult, some difficult conversations with families. And we have a remote option if somebody isn't ready. They can still be part of that exact classroom and then when they are ready, we can transition them in if they need extra time to learn how to wear a mask. Or if there is an exception that we have to grant for some medical reason, we have, we have a process for that, and we'll work to support our principals. But we will put some safety protocol in place for those students, whether it's shields with some type of cloth covering or whether it's freestanding shields near those students. And we owe it to the rest of the students to carry that out.

Amber Concepcion: How critical mask-wearing is, is something that every medical professional on our health and safety team has, you know, absolutely reiterated. That's sort of the key ingredient for being able to have students in building safely at this point, the scientific research on wearing masks and their effectiveness in terms of slowing the growth of infections. With this disease, it's pretty clear so we're going to follow the direction of scientists on this and, and simply, you know, ask that all of our students and families, anyone in our buildings needs to be wearing a mask. The pictures coming out of Georgia in that school, I mean, those were really alarming. I think it's important to note that no one should ever be able to take a picture like that in one of our school buildings, for one thing, because masks will be required, but also because we're going to have, you know, 40% or fewer students in our secondary schools at any given time. So we should never see a hallway that's crowded and full of unmasked students in the manner that that high school picture that kind of went viral and we're also expecting physical distancing of students while they're in our hallways.

Anne Danahy: We've covered a lot of different topics I appreciate you're willingness to kind of jump all over with this, but what is it that keeps you up at night? What are those unknowns that we're we talked a little bit about earlier things that he did is hard to plan for it because you don't know what's coming down the pike. Maybe we'll start with you Amber, what keeps you up at night?

Amber Concepcion: So I think, particularly as we mentioned at the beginning in regard to being able to make decisions informed by data, and because our community is going to grow by 40,000 Penn State students who are coming from all over the state and the country the same week that school opens that it's really difficult to look at the Centre County infection numbers and be sure that we have the data that we need to make good decisions. And so, you know, that just means that we're gonna have to be really vigilant in the first couple weeks of school, that we're really keeping tabs on trends that might be concerning, you know, and just wanting to make the right decision because there's a lot at stake. Nobody wants to close schools unnecessarily because the costs to kids and families are really high and not being able to have schools open, it's kind of a catastrophe in a community. So you know, being sure that we make the right decision and one that's safe and will be best for kids, that's definitely what's keeping me up at night.

Anne Danahy: And Dr. O'Donnell, how about you?

Bob O'Donnell: You, we don't have a crystal ball, but we're trying to look upstream so to speak. And there's no question. I would love to be, you know, responsive to everybody. You know, I'd love to give, you know the number of people that have asked us to give all of our employees choice. There is nobody in this town that would like to do that more than me. We just, we can't carry out our plan for students if we did that. And that's, that's, for me, that keeps me up at night because, you know, I want to be responsive to everybody and I want them to feel 100% charged up for doing their role with with our students and in our community. And you know, we are a huge ingredient in the recipe that makes our community go, like Amber said, and, you know, we want to deliver. That's our role. You know, our mission is really related to the future of these kids. And we know that we took a step back on our work toward that and, you know, we're going to gear up as best we can for this year and make it the best possible. And, you know, the best thing we can do for kids is give them our teachers in any way we can, whether it's in person or remote, and we're going to do that. And, you know, I'm grateful to our faculty for hanging in there. And I know they're going to do their best. So that's that's our goal for this year, and we'll hang in there and figure it out.

Anne Danahy: Amber Concepcion and Bob O'Donnell, thank you both for joining us.

Amber Concepcion: Thank you.

Bob O'Donnell: Thanks, Anne.

Anne Danahy: We've been talking with State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O'Donnell and school board President Amber Concepcion about plans for the fall school year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. To hear this and other episodes of Take Note, go to Note. I'm Anne Danahy. WPSU.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.
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