Following last year’s COVID-related uncertainty, Tuesday started off as a normal first day of school for local students who were excited to see their classmates and teachers.
But the immediate future became a little less certain later in the day as word arrived about Gov. Tom Wolf’s order requiring masks to be worn in schools starting next week.
Three Venango County superintendents spoke to the newspaper on Tuesday, and while Wolf’s mask mandate was on their minds at the end of the day, they were all pleased with how the first day went.
At Oil City, Superintendent Lynda Weller said Tuesday went well as teachers and students were glad to be back in the classroom.
“I touched base with all four principals today and they had a variety of positive words to describe the day — wonderful, fabulous, excellent and great,” Weller said.
She added that “the first day school is always one of the best days of the year. Every year the kids come back bubbling with excitement in their special first day of school outfits. It was a day just like that.”
Weller said that because of Wolf’s order, masks will be required for everyone who enters any Oil City school buildings beginning Tuesday.
Until the order takes effect, the district will continue to abide by the guidelines Oil City School Board members have approved, Weller said.
The guidelines that will be in place the rest of the week state that at elementary schools masks will be mandated if there are 3 or more students/staff in a grade level who have tested positive for COVID in a 14-day rolling window.
The other grade levels in the building aren’t mandated to wear masks but masks will be mandated if there are 5 or more students/staff in the entire building who have tested positive for COVID in a 14-day rolling window, the district’s website says.
At the middle school and high school for the rest of the week, masks will be mandated if there are 5 or more students/staff in the entire building who have tested positive for COVID in a 14-day rolling window, the website says.
The district will follow those guidelines and also monitor the county’s level of virus transmission whether or not state orders are in effect, Weller said. She added that school officials were told the state will reevaluate the mask order at the beginning of October.
“It’s a nice safety net and protective measure to keep our staff and students safe,” Weller said of the school board’s policy.
Weller said the district will provide more information to parents over the next few days via the district’s social media and website.
Franklin Area School District had a successful first day of school that kept fears of a return to logistical failures at bay.
“You always fear when kids return to school organizationally wise if you are ready, and I think we were ready,” Superintendent Mark Loucks said.
Loucks said it stood out to him how excited the kids were to be back in the school buildings.
“We weren’t sure with the current climate how excited they would be to be back,” he said.
A few hiccups with bus routes and other small organizational issues cropped up during the day, but Loucks said families have been supportive as they work out the kinks.
“Our teachers spent the past three days getting ready and they were more than prepared for this day,” Loucks said.
Sighs of relief for pulling off a successful return to schooling were replaced by bated breaths after the statewide school mask mandate was announced.
“Last fall we were able to come back uninterrupted until November 4th, and that’s when Venango County and the rest of the schools started to see the wheels fall off, so we were prepared this year to get as much upfront learning as possible in the event that something like that were to happen again,” Loucks said. “But we hit the ground running today,” he added.
“Unfortunately it looks like it is going to happen sooner rather than later in terms of restrictions,” Loucks said.
The superintendent said Wolf’s announcement Tuesday raises concerns that the district will have to scale back on programming that had been pre-planned and already approved.
“As you move forward you always hold your breath, cross your fingers and carry your rabbit’s foot,” he added.
The superintendent took comfort in that he could rely on continued cooperation with other school districts as COVID-19 continues to affect the classroom.
“We’re really lucky in Venango County that we have a great set of superintendents who stick together,” Loucks said. “So whatever comes out of this mask mandate or this mask legislation, I think we will come up with some plans and see it through.”
Franklin has more than 1,600 students registered for the 2021-22 school year, according to Loucks.
Valley Grove School District had a good day seeing students return to the elementary and high school.
“Nice to see the kids back in the building, smiling. There’s a relief to parents getting back to that normal school experience that we missed last year,” said Superintendent Kevin Briggs.
As the district’s more than 800 students descended upon the school buildings, Briggs said only standard issues arose.
“We had your typical first day of school adjustments that you make as you go,” he said.
However, Briggs said there was a noticeable shift in the day after the mask mandate was announced.
“It was a positive day, but toward the afternoon the conversation did change to the new mask mandate from the state,” Briggs said.
The superintendent said Valley Grove will likely start sending information regarding masks to parents today.
Briggs said this late-breaking and sudden shift in the district’s plans after the state’s announcement is frustrating.
“That happened several times over the course of the pandemic, we get our plans together and then we have to react,” Briggs said.
But overall, Briggs said “we’re excited to be back.”
Efforts to contact Cranberry School District officials, including Superintendent Bill Vonada, were unsuccessful on Tuesday.