The State College Area School board voted 7 to 2 Monday night against a motion to switch entirely to online learning after two weeks in anticipation of an upswing in COVID-19 cases after the return of Penn State students and in-person classes.
The vote followed more than five hours of discussion and public comments during an online meeting attended by more than 700 people.
“All summer long I had been bragging to my friends and my family from across the country that State College put forward a plan very early and a plan with many options," said Kristy Frantz, who has two children in the district. "And It feels like now that plan for in person is being ripped away.”
Frantz was one of the dozens of parents who spoke during the meeting, some supporting moving to remote learning — at least for a while. But many urged the board to stick with its original plan to reopen schools.
Joseph Clark was one of the school district residents who said they were surprised to find out the proposal had been added to the agenda.
“The district’s had six months to plan this fall out and to get cold feet at the last minute, to return to school, seems irresponsible especially while the Centre County COVID numbers are as good as they have been all year," Clark said.
The school district returns to classes next week, at the same time as tens of thousands of Penn State students, raising concerns about an increase in COVID-19 cases.
The board’s vote followed the unanimous approval of the district’s pandemic health and safety plan, which will be submitted to the state. Several board members pointed to all of the work that was put into the plan and said it will react to any COVID-19 spikes.
“I am also fairly certain that sometime during the semester we will be shut down or have to go all remote, so my point is I think we let the plan decide when that is,” said board member Jim Leous.
Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said the plan allows the district to close schools and go to remote learning if needed.
“If we’re safe, I believe that students should be in school with our faculty and staff. It’s the best scenario for student learning and their well-being, and that includes all the input we’ve had from physicians, including our pediatricians,” O’Donnell said.
One of the concerns raised was how long COVID-19 testing results are taking come back.
Information presented to the board noted that the district checked and the current turnaround times for testing and found: Geisinger is 24 hours; Mount Nittany Health is 48 hours; and Penn State Health is 24 to 48 hours. It does not say what percentage of testing in the county is done through those services.
Penn State faculty member Maciej Boni, who has been advising the district, said he would check on that, and that it should be the majority of tests coming in.
School board member Gretchen Brandt spoke in favor of going remote after two weeks to assess the situation. She pointed to concerns she's heard from teachers and staff, saying their voices have been absent from the discussion.
“By the time the numbers get high, it’s too late," Brandt said.
The board also voted against switching entirely to remote.
In addition to in-person classes, families in the district have the option of remote learning or going to a virtual academy.