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School Official On A Pennsylvania District's Decision To Revert To Online Learning

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

With cases of coronavirus up sharply in so many places, officials in many schools now face the agonizing decision of whether to shut down again. But compared to the lockdowns of the spring, many more parents and caretakers are now back at work.

MIKE POREMBKA: You know, I had several parents crying on the phone to me this week, saying to me, what am I supposed to do? I'm going to lose my job because I have no one to care for my children. You want to talk about ripping my heart out.

KELLY: That's Mike Porembka. He's assistant superintendent at Greater Latrobe School District in western Pennsylvania. Cases in his county are so high that state guidelines now say all K-12 schools there should move entirely online - should being the key word. The state actually leaves it up to individual school districts to make the final call.

POREMBKA: It's all we talk about. It's 90% of our daily discussions. Where are the numbers? Where do we look? What are our cases like? How many kids do we have in quarantine?

KELLY: And so ultimately, his district did decide to move classes entirely online for at least two weeks, starting today. My colleague Audie Cornish spoke to Porembka about what made that decision so difficult.

POREMBKA: I used to say that when we made a decision in the school district, 30% of our community loved it; 30% of our community hated it. Our job was to work the 40% in the middle to understanding why we had to make a decision. And dealing with COVID-type issues, I really feel like we've gone from, you know, working that 40 in the middle to it being a half-and-half proposition. No matter what decision we make, we have made one half of our parents happy and the other half unhappy.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Why do you think there's no middle ground?

POREMBKA: It's our society at this point. Folks are dug in one way or another on this. They either see this as a critical health emergency or the flu or not that important or something made up by the media. We are truly seeing this split right down the middle in our school district and, I believe, in our county.

CORNISH: There's now a lot of conversation about the potential for a vaccine. What would that mean for your district, especially in an age where there are parents who are skeptical of vaccines?

POREMBKA: Well, I think it would help to reduce the anxiety level of some folks. But we have parents who do not want to vaccinate their children for things like chicken pox, measles, et cetera, so I think some folks are naturally going to be skeptical of a vaccine. I think other parents understand the importance of vaccinations. My personal fear is that it will cause folks to relax and reduce mask wearing, you know, reduce the social distancing, things that we've put in place in our school district because we really worked hard to keep our schools open as long as we could. But there's no blueprint for this.

CORNISH: Your district has its own coronavirus dashboard online that you update every day, and this is so parents can basically see individual case counts. Do you think you can do this for another year or more?

POREMBKA: (Laughter) We might not have a choice. I try to get out to our buildings and talk to our students as much as possible. And they'll say to me, you know, when's this going to be over? And they are appreciative that we've kept them in school as long as we have. We've had fall sports seasons. And I will tell you, numerous kids will come up, and they will say to me, Mr. Porembka, thank you so much. I'm so happy we're able to be here. And I tell them, guys, cherish that moment.

I believe as an old social studies teacher that out of tragedies like this, you gain a better appreciation for things. I remember that after 9/11. I remember that after Columbine. And I feel like there's a better appreciation for public education as a whole in our community and from our kids. And that's what I try to reinforce to them - is just take advantage of the moments that we have because we don't know when we'll have to change, just like we did this week.

CORNISH: Mike Porembka, assistant superintendent for Greater Latrobe School District. That's in Latrobe, Pa.

Thank you for talking with us.

POREMBKA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.