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Weary superintendents report slight decline in cases

Knoch High School seniors Grant West (front) and Cale Patten fill out college scholarship information in Kellie Lentz's AP English class. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle 01/14/21

As the two-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic’s descent on Butler County approaches, local school superintendents continue to adjust to the disease’s whims within their districts.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all schools closed for 10 days beginning March 16, 2020, then issued another order the next month instructing schools to remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

Districts across the county scrambled to assist parents and students as lessons continued at home during that time.

Especially hard hit by difficulties were the districts in the northern section of the county, where many homes have no reliable broadband internet connection.

Another COVID-19 surge in the winter of 2020-21 shut schools down again, much to the frustration of working parents.

Many districts then instituted a schedule that involved students attending classes a few days a week and learning at home during the remainder of the week.

All Butler County school districts have now called students back in-person full time, which has created new challenges. As new variants of the disease — some more contagious than others — make their debut, cases of COVID-19 have spiked in some buildings, prompting some schools across the county to pivot to remote learning for short periods of time.

Staffing issues have also affected many schools as faculty members who tested positive or were exposed isolated at home and substitute teachers remained in short supply.

“Two years ago, I thought (the pandemic) would be two months long,” said Eric Ritzert, superintendent at the Karns City Area School District.

Cases appear to level off

He reported seeing a slow and steady increase in cases occurring after students and teachers returned from the Christmas break this month, but things have now stabilized.

“The trend now is cases leveling off to declining this week,” Ritzert said. “That could be short-lived, or it could be a sign of a positive move that COVID has changed more favorably for us.”

He said the district experienced some strain when it came to staffing as substitute teachers were hard to find even before the pandemic.

“There was not a great pool (of substitutes) to begin with, but with people being out, that forced many staff members to cover for each other,” Ritzert said. “We did what we needed to do to keep things moving.”

He said his goal is to keep students in the classroom as much as possible.

“I don’t like the term ‘new normal,’” Ritzert said. “We have to be open-minded and willing to pivot when we get a curve ball.”

Brian White, superintendent at the Butler Area School District, said his much larger district is having the same experience regarding the case count.

“The numbers have definitely leveled off and slightly dipped compared to last week,” White said. “We are watching the percentage of students present in school, and it is definitely up a little bit compared to the low point last week.”

White also has experienced staffing shortages — not only with teachers isolating or recovering, but also with parents who work in the district and have a child at home with a case of COVID-19.

In addition, child care providers are experiencing staffing shortages due to the virus, which is in turn affecting school district employees who rely on them.

“I keep hoping it’s coming to a close and the end keeps getting pushed back farther and farther, but we are definitely ready for normal,” White said.

COVID remains a major factor

Alfonso Angelucci, Slippery Rock Area School District superintendent, also reported that cases have dropped slightly in his district.

“We have six positive cases in the whole district, all students,” Angelucci said. “It was as high as 15 to 20 a couple weeks ago.”

But he said the pandemic continues to be a major factor within the district.

“The nurses are still very busy on the phone with parents, communicating with them about various students and their symptoms,” Angelucci said. “We are extremely appreciative of our nurses and everything they do.”

Regarding staffing, Angelucci said there have been a minimal number of cases among faculty and staff.

“When those staff do report it, we take care of it and ensure they’re out the required amount of time,” he said.

He said one positive element of the pandemic is that hand-washing is way up among students and staff in all buildings while cases of cold and flu have dropped.

“I’m proud of the way our district handled it,” Angelucci said of the pandemic. “We tried to minimize panic, but we still dealt with it seriously.”