Reopening school amid the Coronavius pandemic


Louise Bennett

Displaying their masks and social distancing efforts are (front row, L to R) Landon Peterson and Peyton Hetrick; (back row, L to R) Danica Mallory and Mackenzie Martin.

Masks, shields, and social distancing – protocols that were not needed in school buildings a year ago, but everything is changing with the Coronavirus pandemic. “This will be a year like we’ve never experienced before,” said Dr. Thomas Lesniewski, superintendent of Punxsutawney Area School District.

On March 13, the school district was shut down, but five months later, it is finally reopening. Despite the ever-changing pandemic, the school will still offer in-person classes, following the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines closely.

According to Lesniewski, PASD has purchased two cloth masks for each student, appropriate cleaning supplies, disinfectant spraying machines, and shields for students and teachers. The shields will be attached permanently to the elementary school desks and will be portable for high school students.

The district did a deep clean last spring, and high traffic areas of the schools will be cleaned multiple times a day Lesniewski said. He added that a big part of the plan to keep the schools open is that “everybody needs to self-monitor themselves on a daily basis. If you don’t feel good, don’t go!”

He reported that the district ventilation system meets state and federal codes and the district is using the recommended filters for any areas with air conditioning.

Lesniewski said the district tries to monitor the country and borough numbers, and they are listening to the recommendations of the experts. He added that we are fortunate to live in a rural area; so, as long as we take proper precautions, we will all be fairly safe. However, if a student were to get infected, Lesniewski said, PDH will do the contact tracing.

“I’m hoping that we can keep everyone safe and healthy. I want to have as normal a school year as we can,” Lesniewski said. If the district has to “swivel on a dime” and shut down, he said, they are ready for it.

PIAA announced that fall sports would be allowed to play this fall. Athletic Director Randy Reitz said that some of the biggest changes to sports this year are a reduction of athletic contests, elimination of fans at events, and athletes have to practice social distancing and wear a mask when they are not competing. He added his biggest hope is that everyone stays healthy, and we can compete in some events.

High school principal, Jeffrey Long, who has been with the district for seven years, said he believes the high school is “absolutely” prepared to handle the Coronavirus situation, except for the constant changes to the PDH and CDC guidelines. He added that there are many changes this year from school day start time to clubs to an activity bus.

This year the school will have an activity bus that can take kids home at 5:30, which allows students to have a ride home after extracurricular activities. However, Long said that entire clubs cannot meet together indoors if they have more than twenty-five members.

The new start time for high school students this year will be at 8:20 a.m., which is a half-hour later than last year. This will give teachers fifty minutes every morning of prep time to work on their remote learning preparation in case of a closure and to meet their remote preparation requirement for the year Long said. It will also limit the amount of time students need to be in the building, but there will not be any Flex days or early dismissals this year.

Long expressed his excitement to have the students back in the building, but it does not come without worries.

“I am excited to have all the kids back. I cannot believe I have missed them as much as I have, but there is hesitancy and anxiety. The whole thing looks like a leviathan, there are so many issues that could pop up,” Long said. According to him, the biggest challenge is keeping up and moving with all the changes; he thinks of things every day that have to change because of the procedures that are put in place.

Long said the high school teachers will have ten days of teacher in-service to work on their planning and to be trained in what to do if a student is showing signs of the Coronavirus, which he believes is pretty reasonable. It is the first time, Long said, the students are going to school like this, and the first time the teachers are teaching in this, so he asks to approach this school year with a bit of patience.

“If everyone can remain positive, we will adapt, and the kids will adapt quickly. I beg of your positivity, flexibility, and patience,” Long said.

Elementary school principal, Dr. Michael Guidice, who has worked for the district for thirteen years, said he is excited for the students and faculty to be back in the building.

“We miss everyone’s smiling face, and we are looking forward to getting normalcy back in our daily routines. We are looking forward to having fun learning opportunities again,” Guidice said. He added that the biggest challenge is going to be maintaining a safe and friendly learning environment. They have changed daily routines and teaching strategies to comply with the CDC guidelines and recommendations, but they want to make sure to keep a welcoming and comforting environment to focus on learning. He said he believes that students are up to the challenge and will do very well in accepting the circumstances with which they are dealing.

Guidice said he feels that he is impressed with the amount of time and effort that everyone has put forth to ensure that the kids have a safe environment, but his biggest concern is that everyone is going to look at the glass being half full. They have found the need for change and found innovative and interesting techniques to comply with those changes Guidice said.

One of these changes is the implementation of Google Classroom and Sandbox, which will be used for idea sharing and gathering work. He said in the event of a closure, they will have all the resources in place, and the students will be allowed to take home their iPad and charger.

He does not want to isolate children at their age, even though they are confined to their classroom, he wants to have a friendly, welcoming and nurturing environment to go to and feel safe while still interacting with their peers. Making sure kids are socially and emotionally cared for, Guidice said, is just as important as academically. He added that they have been looking at other options for recess including competitions through Zoom.

The quote “Keep moving forward,” from Walt Disney is the short and sweet quote Guidice said he has kept in mind through this pandemic and changes.

“This is the situation we were dealt, we can either keep our heads down and be negative or keep moving forward and accept the challenges that were given to us, benefitting from the experience and becoming better people and educators,” Guidice said. He added that he is very proud to be a part of the PASD team, and he is impressed by the amount of heart, hard work and dedication they were willing to give to help the school and community.

As Guidice has said, this is the situation we were dealt, but Lesniewski, Long, and Guidice have all expressed their desire to get the students back in the classroom and learning with them through the changes of this pandemic.