HARRISBURG — Harrisburg schools have moved to full-remote learning for 10 days after a significant number of staff and students were quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19-positive individuals.
“After meeting with Egyptian Health Department, and conversations with our board members, we feel like it’s best for the community and our kids to go ahead and do the 10 days and try to deep clean and let some things run their course,” Mike Gauch, superintendent of Harrisburg Community Unit District 3, told The Southern Thursday morning.
Gauch said that, to date, five individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 across the district’s four buildings. But he said that more than 15 staff members and upward of 80 students have been affected, with the vast majority quarantined due to potential exposure.
Gauch said that many families have children of varying ages attending school in more than one building, and quarantine or isolation orders of one child meant that their siblings also had to stay home.
Further, with 15 to 20 employees affected by isolation and quarantine orders, Gauch said continuing to operate in-person learning presented staffing challenges.
The district had planned for such a scenario prior to the start of school in August, and most families have been understanding about the quick shift to temporary remote learning, Gauch said. Some are frustrated, but Gauch said the school is following guidelines outlined by state and local health officials, and teachers are working closely with students and their families to make the transition as smooth as possible.
The district notified families Tuesday evening that school — both in-person and remote — was canceled for Wednesday due to the confirmed outbreak. On Wednesday, the decision was made to move to remote-only learning through Oct. 2. The plan is for students to return to school in person on Monday, Oct. 5.
Though it isn't always possible to know precisely, Gauch said that Egyptian Health officials informed him that the school does not appear to be the source of the spread. Gauch said the confirmed cases appear to be related to community spread, and spread within households.
Egyptian Health is managing 113 active COVID-19 cases in Saline County. Since the start of the pandemic, 309 Saline County residents have tested positive and four have died.
Gauch said that parents of about 28% of the district’s student body elected for the remote-only learning option at the beginning of the school year, so they are largely unaffected by the change. For students attending in person, connectivity challenges are a significant concern for many families living in rural Saline County during the transition to remote learning. Gauch said the district called each affected family Wednesday to determine their internet access, and delivered 104 hotspots throughout the day.
“We’ve got about 20 more to deliver today, and then we believe everybody is Wi-Fi ready,” Gauch said Thursday. “We’ll see if we have any connectivity problems because we are very rural. We’ll just have to see as they log on.”
If technological challenges cannot be overcome, Gauch said paper packets will be delivered to families, and teachers will work closely with their students to try to keep anyone from falling behind. Gauch said he appreciates the hard work of his staff and teachers, as well as the cooperation of families during these challenging times.
“They’ve done a great job of getting these hot spots out,” he said. “I was worried it would take us two or three days to get it. The fact that we got all calls made and the kids set up, I’m very pleased with what we’ve been able to do to get it going today.”
Another area school also has been affected by COVID-19 this week. Vienna High School superintendent Joshua Stafford said in a community email that Southern Seven Health Department notified the school Thursday of an individual who had tested positive. He said the health department determined through contact tracing that about a dozen others associated with the school will need to quarantine.
"All of these individuals have been pre-notified by the school nursing staff, and immediately started their quarantine as required by the health department," Stafford wrote in the email.
Vienna High School has not called off in-person classes. Stafford said the school would work closely with students who are required to quarantine at home to help keep them on track via remote learning.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI