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MCSD prepared for ‘different’ year

Mifflin County students will not be permitted at school without wearing masks

LEWISTOWN — Students going back to school in the fall will enter a different environment than the one they left when the previous school year ended abruptly in March due to Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive order to close them.

The changes will be an adjustment for everyone involved, but administrators at Mifflin County School District say they are prepared for students to return.

“It’s not the normal we left with, but it’s the normal we have now,” said Kevin O’Donnell, the district’s chief academic officer. “Everybody is safe and we’re ready to do what we can together and confront a rather uncertain time, be honest and direct with our students and move forward … that’s not to say there won’t be a few bumps in the road … but we feel our community is in a better place.”

When students return to the school in the fall, they will notice a few changes.

Classroom desks will be arranged three to six feet apart and all facing the same direction. Siblings will also be expected to sit together on the school bus whenever possible and students in kindergarten through fifth grade will have their temperature taken prior to them being allowed to enter the school buildings.

While the changes may be stressful for some students and staff, O’Donnell explained that the extra efforts are all for a common purpose, “to protect the safety of all involved and to get students back to a learning environment where they feel supported.”

Perhaps one of the most contentious subjects related to the return of the school year is the state mandate to wear masks when social distancing cannot be achieved, said Superintendent James Estep.

“We’re having a lot of pushback from parents who are anti-mask,” he said. That’s probably going to remain the biggest issue.”

Estep said the district will enforce the mask-wearing policy.

“We will try to work with a student to help them keep the mask on. We will try to work with the students’ parent to try to help them keep the mask on, but if the problem persists, or if we have a parent who is essentially encouraging their child not to wear a mask, there is nothing we can do at that point,” he said. “We have the authority to move them and meet their public education through online options.”

Students going back to the classroom for face-to-face learning will attend four days a week, with the fifth day being designated as a remote learning day while maintenance staff would do a “deep clean” of school buildings.

There are online learning options for parents unsure of whether to send their child to the brick and mortar school.

Mifflin County School District offers two online options for its students — MCO for kindergarten to sixth grade and Alpha for grades seven to 12.

Chris Gill, coordinator for the programs, said he is anticipating more students in those programs than in previous year.

“We have already passed the number we finished with last year in the MCO program,” he said.

The deadline for parents to apply for the program is Aug. 3.

Estep encouraged parents who are contemplating whether to send their child to an external cyber/charter school to contact Gill for more information.

“He can give them an apples-to-apples comparison as to what we can offer,” he said.

Gill can be reached at cmg29@mcsdk12.org.

The district is also more prepared to handle instruction for the upcoming year.

“We have no doubt we are going to find that some of our students lost instruction. None of us were prepared for this. It was thrust upon us at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon with no real forewarning,” Estep said. “We had to scramble to come up with learning plans. We had staff who, through no fault of their own, were not necessarily prepared. Some staff were more comfortable using technology platforms to deliver instruction. Others weren’t. I think we’re going to see a significant difference in staff capacity through delivering online practices and you’re certainly going to see a difference in administrative expectation in staff for using those.”

O’Donnell said teachers have been surveyed to find out more about gaps that exist in instruction so that teachers can prepare accordingly.

“We needed to make sure we were covering the content we needed to cover this year and make sure we were filling in those gaps we created last year.”

O’Donnell said afterschool tutoring will be made available for students who are showing a decline or an academic deficit.

Estep added that the pandemic has reinforced the importance of the integration of technology platforms in everyday teaching.

“The big thing that is going to be emphasized with staff is drawing encouragement to try to incorporate the use of Google Classroom and other tech platforms in everyday instruction just to make it become part of what is normal.”

The emotional impact of the pandemic is the “biggest component” of the district’s plan to return to school, said O’Donnell.

“We all know there is a curriculum gap, but what remains to be seen is how students are going to respond when they are back within the walls of our schools,” he said. “The key component of our learning plans, particularly from a social-emotional end is that we are reaffirming with all of our students that school is a safe place and we are taking necessary precautions to make sure that we are being safe for ourselves and all of the members of our learning community.”

The district is utilizing PBIS teams in each building and student assistance programs have been activated.

The district has also been proactive in “beefing up” emotional learning opportunities.

Cindi Marsh, director of student services, said the district has recently taken on two new social workers as a result of school safety grants. The district also has two school-based mental health therapists, and a staff of school counselors/school psychologists.

“I think we are a little bit ahead here. Our mental health teams have been leading since the pandemic started,” she said.

Marsh said the district has prepared a mental health survey that will assess students’ needs upon entering school.

“We’re prepared. Our staff are ready to provide the support that our students need. We are fully staffed and are very proud of the number of mental health professionals we have within the district.”

Model behavior

The best thing a parent can do is educate themselves with information provided from the district and apply it as needed based on their circumstance, administrators said.

“I would say to a parent that is having some anxieties to reach out, call your child’s school and have a conversation with the building-level administrator so they can arm themselves with information. The most important thing they can do right now to bridge that gap of communication is to reach out so that we can partner with one another,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell encourages parents to model appropriate behavior to their child.

“Our students are going to respond in the way that we are responding,” he said. “So if we are demonstrating that wearing a mask is not a major deal … our children will tend to take on how it is that we are presenting it.”

Estep emphasized that the mask order is a state mandate, not just a Mifflin County School District policy.

“The school districts have to comply with state orders. The single greatest influence in a child’s attitude toward returning to school and wearing masks lies with the parents.”

If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, Mifflin County School District will adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines, said Vance Varner, the district’s chief operations officer.

‘We would assist the Department of Health with their initiation of contact tracing and we would be in a support role,” Varner said.

Parents are encouraged to access the district’s website, mcsdk12.org, for accurate and up-to-date information as the situation progresses.

If parents aren’t receiving Skylert messages from the district, they are encouraged to contact their child’s school.

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