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Chambersburg Area School District votes to continue virtual learning until January 14

Carley Bonk
Chambersburg Public Opinion

Chambersburg Area School District will be continuing with full-virtual instruction until at least Jan. 14, 2021. 

The decision — sealed with a 7 to 2 vote by the school board — came after a nearly five-hour meeting Tuesday evening.

Dion Betts, the superintendent, recommended virtual learning at least through the end of the year, citing concerns of the virus spreading as families travel for the holidays.

School board members reviewed nearly 50 public comments from concerned parents through voicemail, email and letter submissions. The majority pleaded with the board to keep their children in school and extra-curricular activities.

Kara Pittman, a parent of a child with special needs who attends Guilford Elementary, said that her son has fallen far behind without regular instruction.

"This virtual program for children like him is not ideal," she said in a pre-recorded voicemail. "These children need to be back at school, especially children that have learning disabilities."

Another concerned parent, Ashley Norris, said that young children aren't getting the social and emotional support that they need.

"Our child has not been provided with any emotional or social support, but yet we are continuingly confusing our children with the back and forth from in-person to no in-person school," she said. 

A number of parents — and even students — called specifically to convince the board to refrain from canceling winter sports.

Ed Smith, a youth basketball coach, said the district should follow PIAA regulations instead of shutting down the season.

"I don't understand why the knee jerk reaction to this, considering that you haven't even given it a trial run to find out if it's going to be feasible or not," he said.

Calissa Salmon, a Chambersburg Area Middle School South 7th-grade basketball player, said she doesn't want to miss out on her season. 

"I think I can speak for other people when I say it is the highlight of our day — as boys and girls who have worked so hard to just make this team, we put all our heart and soul just to become a part of the team," she wrote. "With school out and everything being shut down, us kids have no social interaction; and to be honest, with all that, basketball has become my life."

Despite the comments, school board members remained concerned about keeping children in school, especially with the inability to properly staff classrooms as the virus continues to spread.

Chambersburg Area School District's School Board met virtually for nearly five hours on Dec. 1, 2021 to discuss the continuation of virtually learning for the school district as COVID-19 cases surge in Franklin County.

Additionally, the state has issued new guidelines districts must follow in order to continue in-person learning, according to Betts. Some of those guidelines include:

  • No snacks in the classroom
  • No face shields; everyone must wear masks
  • Lunchroom food must be pre-packaged and handed out to students

Kris Scritchfield, Region 3, said she is concerned with the COVID-19 positivity rate for this area.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is reporting a positivity rate of 15.8% in Franklin County, surpassing the statewide average of 11.7%.

Staff within the district has overwhelmingly urged the board to move to virtual instruction. 

Kevin Mintz, Region 9, said teachers have seen the spread first-hand.

"I had 84 teachers that talked to me in the past three weeks — I went back and counted emails, phone conversations — I had 81 tell me we need to close schools; I had three tell me not to," he said. "That's not because they wanted to, it's because they saw the spread. They see what's going on in schools, the best that people can do, and it's just gotten out of hand in the community."

Currently, the district has reported 52 positive cases. 

Edward Norcross, Region 6, said the district is divided.

"We've received a lot of emails from our staff imploring us to go to a full-virtual model," he said. "And now we have public comment that wants to remain at least a hybrid model. This is a tough decision and not everybody is going to be happy with this decision, but it's one that we have to make."

Mark Schur, Region 2, said that parents need to keep their children home if they are exhibiting symptoms.

"Remember that some of our teachers also have responsibilities: for elderly parents, vulnerable spouses and children," he said. "So yes, some have concerns that they may pick up COVID from a child sent to school with symptoms, becoming ill themselves and then passing it on to others."

Michael Finnucane, Region 7, said that people in this area need to take safety measures more seriously.

"Do you know anybody that doesn't believe in coronavirus?" he asked. "Do you know anybody who thinks it's a joke - wearing a mask? Do you know anybody that wants to make a point of making a joke of the whole thing? Do you know anybody that exposes their families? Lets their kids go to school when they know they're positive? This is the undertow we're fighting against — so many people are doing the right thing, and the undertow of people not cooperating is driving our community rates sky high, much higher than many other counties in Pennsylvania."

Following remarks by board members, the board voted to move to full-virtual instruction from Dec. 3 through Jan. 14. Norcross and Schur voted "no."

Chambersburg Area School District notifies families on its website regarding the school board's decision to continue with virtual instruction until Jan. 14, 2021.

The board then moved to discuss the continuation of extra-curricular activities, specifically winter sports (wrestling, boys/girls basketball, boys/girls swimming and diving, cheerleading and indoor track), as well as marching band and orchestra. 

Betts noted that he wouldn't be opposed to such activities continuing, as students, coaches and advisors are making the choice to participate and are not required to do so.

Jeremy Flores, director of athletics, said teams are prepared to follow the guidance of the PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Board. 

If sports were to continue, spectators would be required to be kept to a very low number. The Chambersburg Field House would only be permitted to have 104.4 people — a 5% capacity — at any event. That number would have to include athletes, coaches and supporting officials. Chambersburg Area Middle School North's gym could only house 70 people per event.

Flores stated that high school events are live-streamed from the field house, allowing more spectators through a virtual platform. 

The board voted 6 to 3 to allow for winter sports to continue until further notice. Dana Baker, Region 1; Mintz, and Thomas Dolan, Region 5, voted against the measure. 

More:Most of Franklin County's secondary schools now closed as COVID-19 cases surge

More:'Substantial' COVID-19 transmission in Franklin County affecting some schools

Other business at the meeting included elections for various positions and committees. Baker was the only nomination for president, while Mintz was elected vice-president by surpassing Norcross by a single vote.

The board is scheduled to virtually meet next on Jan. 12 to discuss how to best move forward with the rest of the school year.

Lance Walker, Region 4, reminded others that if the staff wasn't healthy, the students' well-being would suffer as well.

"I'm just asking everybody in the community — the board and the community at large — to take a step back, take a deep breath and maybe let's get back to where we were at when this thing first started: an outpouring of love and care for our for humanity and our fellow man," he said.

Carley Bonk is a Watchdog Reporter for the USA Today Network - Pennsylvania. Her coverage spans across the southcentral region of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at cbonk@publicopinionnews.com or on Twitter at @carls_marie.