ATHENS – During a regular meeting on Tuesday, the Athens School Board voted to approve an updated health and safety plan for the 2021-22 school year.

At the top of the meeting, Athens Superintendent Craig Stage went over some of the expectations that the district has for next school year.

“The district is going to do its absolute best to return to pre-pandemic conditions,” said Stage, “but we cannot forget that COVID-19 will still be in Bradford County and we still will be prepared to address it if it becomes a pervasive issue within our district and within our community.”

Stage explained that the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Health both made the decision to follow CDC guidelines for COVID-19 prevention in schools.

“There is only one requirement for face coverings,” said Stage. “Students and drivers of vans and busses must wear face coverings while on a bus despite their vaccination status.”

Later in the meeting Stage explained that this is because a federal statute is still in place for masks on public transport, a classification that school transportation falls under.

According to Stage, face coverings will be recommended but not required inside the school for all students under the age of 12, as well as any unvaccinated students and staff.

Stage said that “school districts may be given the opportunity to participate in a COVID-19 testing program” at no charge to the districts, but explained that there has been little explanation of the details behind this state sponsored program.

“We don’t know what it means, what the process is, (or) who’s involved,” said Stage. “Once those details come out we’ll discuss as a board and an administrative staff to see if it’s something that fits the Athens Area School District.”

Stage said that contact tracing and quarantining procedures will carry over into the 2021-22 school year, although vaccinated individuals will be exempt.

“If you remember,” said Stage, “contact tracing is an exposure to a COVID-positive symptomatic person for 15 minutes and within a six feet radius.”

While these procedures will be in place at the beginning of next school year, Stage said there is the possibility of them changing.

“It could transition to something else throughout the school year,” said Stage. “We were told to be prepared to transition (but) I don’t know what that is. It could be lessening of the contact tracing and quarantining or it could be an increase.”

The Athens Area School District is encouraging COVID-19 vaccination, but Stage reassured that it will not be required.

“We understand and respect the fact that it’s a parent’s choice to get their child vaccinated,” said Stage.

He went on to say that the school may partner with local heath professionals to offer vaccination clinics at the school for anyone that wants to receive the vaccine and has not yet been able to.

“That would be at the determination of any health care providers that would like to offer a clinic on our campus to bring that to the students and parents and staff,” said Stage.

Stage reiterated the fact that vaccinations will not be required.

“There is no financial benefit to (a clinic) — we don’t get paid for it, it doesn’t cost us anything either — so that’s not a burden to the district,” said Stage.

According to Stage, vaccines for students under the age of 12 are rumored to be available sometime in the late fall.

Parents will once again be asked to pre-screen their children before sending them to school, checking them for any symptoms of COVID-19.

“It is one of the key factors to us not having a situation where we have to close the school or have a situation where COVID spreads in our buildings,” said Stage.

In addition to procedures and protocols, the school will be making a healthier, safer environment by installing bipolar ionization units in the buildings’ HVAC systems.

“Bipolar ionization will limit the amount of contaminates in the air, including noroviruses, which includes SARS-COVID-2, the cold, the flu, molds, and other spores as well,” said Stage.

Lastly, Stage noted that the most important part of Athens’ plan for 2021-22 was the return to in-person instruction for all district students.

“One thing that we’ve learned through this pandemic in 2020-21 was that the most effective way to provide the quality of instruction that we expect from ourselves as a district is through in-person learning,” said Stage. “Truly, that’s what our students deserve, and that’s going to be our goal this year.”

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