As schools prepare for online instruction in response to the ongoing COVID-19-imposed closure, administrators and staff members are trying to keep spirits up and juggle multiple challenges.
“It’s different times right now,” said Dr. Alfonso Angelucci, superintendent of Slippery Rock Area School District.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered that schools close for two weeks starting March 16. That order was scheduled to expire Monday, but Wolf extended that order this week through April 6.
Online instruction starts Monday in the Slippery Rock and Grove City Area school districts.
Both districts distributed surveys to determine which students would need to borrow Chromebook laptop computers from the school, and which ones would need help with internet access.
At least 30 students in Slippery Rock received the computers this week, and the district is working to provide internet access for those who need it, Angelucci said.
On Wednesday, Grove City Area School District officials set up a drive-thru in the parking lot of Hillview Elementary School to distribute more than 200 Chromebooks to students.
To maintain social distancing principles under COVID-19 protocols, families pulled up to the curb and held up a piece of paper with their last name written in large letters.
Elementary Principal Tammi Martin and school police officers helped direct traffic while Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Finch and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joshua Weaver — both wearing face masks and gloves — handed over the computers.
Most families expressed gratitude, with some bearing “Thank you” signs.
It was a lot of work to get the computers ready, Finch said.
School staff had to sanitize the devices, the families had to sign user agreements, and school employees recorded the serial numbers.
“We started working on things like this right out of the gate,” Finch said of Wolf’s March 13 school closure order.
Both Angelucci and Finch said online instruction will be flexible for students, who will be able to work on assignments and lessons at time convenient for them.
Finch stressed that the computers, which will have to be returned when classes resume, are intended for students who have no other technology options.
“We definitely want to conserve those resources,” he said.
Both districts have also been busy handing out meals to students who qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch programs, and staff has been cleaning and sanitizing buildings and equipment. District employees who can work from home are encouraged to do so.
Slippery Rock and Grove City are using technology not only for instruction, but also for communication. Both districts are posting the latest information on their websites — www.grovecity.k12.pa.us and www.slipperyrock.k12.pa.us
Officials are using mass messaging systems that send out notifications via email, voice recording and text message.
Finch said Grove City residents should make sure that their contact information is up to date.
Both superintendents said they were grateful to their communities for their patience, support and understanding, especially the staff, students and families.
Some events are being rescheduled or canceled, and Angelucci said he understands that students are disappointed, especially since he always looks forward to attending events like concerts and athletic competitions.
“We’re a very face-to-face type of industry,” he said.
But through the frustration, he is happy to see the teachers keeping spirits up by continuing to communicate with students.
Finch said the situation is the same in Grove City, and that many people want to help, although district residents can help most effectively by staying home to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“I’ve never seen such grace and support,” Finch said.
That support extends to the school staff, especially Judy Dennis, Grove City schools’ technology director. Finch said she has been essential to the online instruction process, showing “total selflessness.”
“They all deserve to be thanked,” Finch said of the district’s entire staff.
The Grove City superintendent said he believes that things are going to get more difficult before they get better. Finch hopes the community continues to be courteous and practice kindness, which is what he has seen so far.
Grove City’s elementary schools will hold a “spirit week” the week of March 30, with a different theme each day, for students to take part in from their homes.
Details are available on the district’s Facebook page, which includes updates and fun videos put together by teachers and administrators.
“We’re gonna do everything that we can safely do. We’re just gonna have to do it day by day,” Finch said.
He’s also working with district Solicitor Andrew Evankovich on preparing for the next school board meeting, which is scheduled for April 6. Finch said the board might have to conduct the next meeting digitally.
Over at George Junior Republic in Pine Township, which is part of Grove City Area School District, officials are taking precautions that adhere to the infectious-disease response plan.
Admissions and visitations have been suspended, said Nathan Gressel, chief executive officer of George Junior, which houses and educates at-risk youth.
“The campus is pretty much shut down,” he said.
Cleaning protocols have been enhanced, and the student cottages have rooms that will serve as online learning classrooms when that begins Tuesday.
The school is continuing treatment and therapy for students, with activities available. Students also have phone calls and video chats with their families.
“We’re trying to operate as normal as possible,” Gressel said.
Grove City Christian Academy – which only a month ago cut the ribbon on a second classroom building, on South Broad Street – has already moved all of its classes to an online platform, Headmaster Sidney Henriquez said in an email.
He said the school is grateful to God for filling the school’s need qualified IT professionals and staff is turning to prayer for guidance through challenges posed by the pandemic.
“The GCCA community is praying for wisdom for all civil, church and academic authorities as they take on their role to protect the weak and needy within our community,” Henriquez said.