BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The Bethlehem Area School District superintendent on Monday night expressed frustration with new statewide mitigation measures to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
During his report to the school board, Superintendent Joseph Roy reacted to Monday’s announcement by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration that school districts must commit to new measures to ensure the safety of students and teachers.
For counties that are in the "substantial" transmission level for at least two consecutive weeks, schools must follow updated protocols if a COVID-19 case is identified in a school building. Both Northampton and Lehigh counties are in the substantial phase.
By 5 p.m. on Nov. 30, chief school administrators and the governing body must sign an attestation form stating they have transitioned to fully remote learning or are complying with the orders if they are conducting any in-person instruction while in the substantial range of transmission.
Districts that do not sign or comply with an attestation are required to provide fully remote learning only and suspend all extracurricular activities as long as the county remains in the substantial transmission level.
Roy said the challenge with the new measures is that it puts schools in a constant state of being open and being closed, comparing a possible scenario to a sudden snow day that is frequently repeated.
“We can’t put that on parents” who have to arrange for child care, he said.
Roy said students, particularly at-risk students, need to be in school more than two days a week and noted that an arbitrary plan “is missing the boat.” The district will have to navigate the new mitigation plan over the next few weeks to see if any clarifications are issued, he said.
Roy said Bethlehem public schools, which are using a hybrid model of learning, are fortunate to have a sophisticated team of health professionals— from the district, the city of Bethlehem, and St. Luke’s University Health Network—to advise the administration, provide data, and monitor the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite a rise in COVID-19 cases, schools are still documented as safe places, Bethlehem Health Bureau Director Kristen Wenrich told the board, adding that infected students contracted the virus outside of school.
Before making any decision, she said the health bureau looks at absenteeism and the number of students and staff in quarantine. Earlier this semester, Liberty High School had a number of cases, but data showed no evidence of school spread, and the decision was made not to close the school, Wenrich said.
Dr. Rajika Reed, senior network director of epidemiology and strategy at St. Luke’s University Health Network, helps advise the district and said the hospital has seen few infections coming from school settings.
She recommended that Bethlehem continue to track infections at the school level and remain with hybrid education. To help keep kids in school, she urged the continuation of social distancing, hand hygiene, and the wearing of face masks.
Reed noted that St. Luke’s is seeing increased COVID-19-related admissions and more intensive care unit beds filling up.
COVID-19 fatigue is also affecting staff, she said, which puts on strain on the number of employees that can be rotated.