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Harrisburg School District may return elementary, special education students to the classroom in March

Acting Superintendent Chris Celmer.

Harrisburg School District officials may be closer to welcoming students back into school buildings.

If COVID-19 cases continue to decrease in the district, small cohorts of students could resume brick-and-mortar learning in March, said Acting Superintendent Chris Celmer at a school board meeting on Tuesday.

“This is our hope, this is our wish, this is what we want to see hopefully happen,” Celmer said.

He said that the focus would be on returning special education and elementary students to the buildings first, as well as other cohorts of students that the district determines are struggling the most.

The district has been operating with a 100% virtual learning model since the beginning of the school year. From the start, they have been looking for Dauphin County to meet certain benchmarks in order to bring students back to the buildings. Celmer said that they are still using those markers to determine if they will allow these small groups back to school buildings in March.

These include reduced positivity rates, below 10%, and incidence rates per 100,000 residents trending downward to a daily rate of 100 or less. He also wants to see the wastewater epidemiology tracker, Biobot, project Harrisburg virus cases closer to 100 or less per day.

Additionally, Celmer noted that the Pennsylvania Department of Education updated its recommendation for schools in regards to COVID on Jan. 7. They previously encouraged completely remote education for counties with a positivity rate above 10% and an incidence rate per 100,000 people above 100. With those same virus rates, they now recommend virtual but with a blended model for elementary students.

Celmer said that all students will definitely continue virtual learning in January and February.

“We recognize and we acknowledge that 100% remote learning is not for every student, and we understand that,” Celmer said. “But there’s an overwhelming safety issue and an overwhelming numbers issue here.”

Part of the concern for how a blended in-person model will pan out comes from the district’s experience with teachers this fall.

Up until early November, teachers were providing virtual instruction from classrooms in school buildings. However, Celmer said that the administration decided to have them work remotely when they saw an increased number of COVID cases among teachers.

“It went from one to two in an eight-week period to really every day we were having some type of COVID-related issue with staff,” he said. “Even with no students in our buildings, we were struggling.”

Celmer said that the district will continue to monitor state, county and city COVID data, but as of now, it is still too soon to consider bringing large numbers of students back.

He did say it was possible that teachers would come back to the buildings in February along with English language learning students for their required language proficiency testing.

“This has been hard,” Celmer said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about the impact of this on the families and the children of the Harrisburg School District.”

For more information, visit Harrisburg School District’s website.

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