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Estep to retire next year

Board split over COVID concerns

LEWISTOWN — Mifflin County School District Superintendent James Estep is set to retire next year.

School board member Mary Lou Sigler thanked Estep during the board’s Thursday meeting for his honesty, transparency and integrity throughout his tenure.

“You came into this district at a very challenging time, and you’re going to be leaving at a very challenging time,” said board President Terry Styers.

The board unanimously approved Estep’s retirement, effective Sept. 10, 2021.

Thank you for everything you’ve done, Jim,” said board member Kristen Sharp.

Estep’s announcement was a brief moment during the Zoom meeting that was untouched by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the meeting focused on discussions about the best way to continue serving students amid rising case numbers seen throughout the Juniata Valley.

Estep said executive officers of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association have again declined to provide rulings on how to handle winter sports.

“… which means that kicks it back on all the local school boards to make those decisions,” he said.

MCSD is scheduled to begin winter sports practices on Nov. 30, and a majority of the school board voted to move forward as planned.

Sigler spoke in opposition and cautioned her colleagues to consider not only students but teachers, staff and community who could become very ill if exposed to the virus.

“This is not something that can be taken lightly,” she said.

Others believe it is safe to continue.

Board member John Knepp said he heard representatives from the PIAA say “there is no case reported to them of players in athletics passing COVID from one to the other.”

Members Noah Wise and Fred Nickel also urged the district to move forward as planned, saying athletics and face-to-face instruction are ideal for the health and well-being of students.

The discussion continued back and forth, with teachers and parents weighing in during public comment periods. Estep warned that there may be tough decisions ahead.

“Mifflin County is really, right now, on the upslope … still going up the upslope for the spike, and we’re probably not going to peak until mid-January,” he said about positive case numbers.

He emphasized that the decision to move to fully remote instruction is his alone, and teachers and staff should not be blamed. He said no one who is part of the district believes that closing is better for students than in-person instruction. What typically determines whether schools remain open is the ability to operate. If enough faculty and staff are sick or quarantining, the district loses its ability to operate.

“We’re going to have to make some decisions on whether or not we can safely bring everybody back on the 30th,” he said.

Related to winter sports, Chief Operations Officer Vance Varner informed the board that only five students signed up for swimming this winter, down from nine last year. He said maintaining a district swim team will cost around $29,000 to $30,000 this year with extra cleaning to comply with CDC guidelines during home meets.

“We’re not bringing this up because we want to shut it down,” Estep said, explaining that the conversation was in the name of transparency.

Board members said they would like to learn more about the program’s operations and see whether there are ways to cut costs without canceling the season for district swimmers.

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