Even with new guidance, Pennsylvania school districts grapple with return to in-person learning

Originally published Feb. 18, 2021 for The PLS Reporter.

The second full semester of school in a pandemic is underway, and nationwide the debate over whether or not learning should occur in person has heated up once again. Unlike in the fall, COVID-19 cases are significantly higher, and while vaccine distribution is ongoing, in most places it is plagued by inefficiency, a lack of supply and prioritizations that don’t yet include educators.

On Feb. 11, the CDC published guidance for school openings, which was by far the most comprehensive set of recommendations the agency has released with regards to returns to learning for the nation’s students. Much of the guidance is aimed at helping school officials make decisions about how to safely operate during the ongoing pandemic, and includes topics for stakeholders to consider like student equity, staff safety, planning for emergency operations and more.

At the heart of the CDC guidelines is what many states and local education agencies have already considered to be the biggest component in reopening decisions: community COVID-19 transmission.

The new guidance sets thresholds for community transmission that go from low to moderate to substantial to high and correspond with recommended reopening models for schools. The recommended operations also depend on whether or not a school is able to implement expanded screening testing, though even with screening testing, schools in the substantial and high categories are advised to use hybrid learning models.

At all levels, the CDC says universal and correct mask usage is necessary for safe schools, as is some element of physical distance.

Under the thresholds, the vast majority of the country is considered to be experiencing high transmission, and therefore should opt for hybrid or virtual learning for most students, rather than a return to full in-person schooling. In Pennsylvania, 81 percent of the state’s 500 public school districts are in the high transmission category, 18 percent are in substantial and just one district, in Cameron County, is in the moderate category.

While the guidelines have added fuel to the fire of the nationwide conversation on school reopening, the federal government has little say in the reopening decisions made at state and local levels. Much like the CDC, Pennsylvania has offered guidance to schools based on the level of community spread that counties are experiencing, and a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education said that the recent CDC updates are already close to what the state has been advising.

“Currently, what is reflected in the recent CDC updates is aligned with current DOH and PDE guidance,” a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education said. “That being said, there are no changes to our guidance at this time but we are carefully reviewing the new information and will provide updates accordingly given future changes.”

In Pennsylvania, the majority of public schools are attempting some form of in-person learning for the spring semester, whether that be blended learning, hybrid models for students of different grades or even full reopens.

According to attestation forms submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education in early December, 453 school entities comprising more than 1 million students submitted for in-person learning, compared to the 320 school entities comprising fewer than 700,000 students opting for remote learning. The attestation forms, which publicly funded schools were required to sign, were meant to ensure that schools agreed to follow the state’s universal mask mandate and positive case identification guidelines, and did not bind schools to the learning model they said they were using in the form.

In Mifflin County, which has the highest deaths per 100,000 rate in the state, students have returned from winter break to a full, five-day-a-week, in-person learning schedule.

“Administratively, I am not doing this by choice,” James Estep, Mifflin County School District superintendent, said.

Mifflin is a rural school district in central Pennsylvania, and has faced a myriad of challenges throughout the pandemic. Estep says that at least three sections of his district have spotty or nonexistent internet connections, which means that when remote learning has happened, paraprofessionals are tasked with running packets to families without transportation or internet access. Plus, the district has some older buildings that don’t have the space to accommodate the needed six feet of social distance or even modern ventilation or windows to keep air circulating.

Based on the county’s COVID-19 data and his schools’ material constraints, Estep wanted to wait until the county saw two consecutive weeks of moderate community transmission before bringing students back in person. The last time the county was considered to have only moderate transmission was in mid-October.

When the district submitted their attestation form in the fall, they noted that the school had transitioned to a fully remote learning model and would continue that way until they were no longer experiencing substantial community spread.

But in the weeks since submitting that form, the decision changed.

“I’m back in person because this is an exceptionally conservative community. It was a community that initially was in line with those who are balking at the severity of the disease or of the spread, and who initially balked, including my board, at wearing masks,” Estep said. “It’s also a very hard working community with almost, literally every parent and every group of parents, they’re both working. And they struggle to find childcare, very much struggle because we’re very rural, there’s a finite number of people available for childcare.”

Facing pressure from parents and a school board with enough members to override any decision and force a full in-person return, Estep, along with pandemic response co-coordinators Vance Varner, district chief operations officer, and Cindi Marsh, director of students services, brought students back in person on Jan. 11.

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has left reopening decisions up to local school districts.

“The decision on which instructional model to employ is made by each Pennsylvania school entity. Understanding that student needs and instructional delivery vary, decisions should be made locally and, in a manner, consistent with any applicable orders of the Governor and/or Secretary of Health,” a spokesperson for the department said.

Both PDE and CDC guidance puts their county in its highest transmission bracket, recommending they only bring elementary students back for hybrid learning and keep middle and high schoolers virtual.

“We put it in writing that we’re going to open up, however we’re following the state guidelines,” Varner said. “And as soon as we meet any thresholds, we do not hold back on going back to full remote or a hybrid model. So we’re gonna try it and honor that request and the school board, however, the three of us, our number one priority is the student safety and staff safety and we are not going to hesitate whatsoever.”

The emphasis on local control over school operations has meant that what the state largely offers to districts is guidance, rather than direct instructions. For Mifflin officials, that’s meant long hours planning and executing mitigation strategies aimed at making the reopen work.

“I would say 90 percent of it, Vance is figuring out on his own in coordination with our internal people, and 10 percent of it is state,” Estep said.

Every Monday, Varner sends a letter to staff and families in the school district with any and all updates. He set up the district’s COVID-19 dashboard to help keep track of cases. He and Marsh, along with the district’s nurses, do the contact tracing for the district. He rarely leaves the administration building; though on Sundays, he does his work from home.

He maintains that he doesn’t do the work alone — Marsh is the co-coordinator, and they have staff that they lean on to help with contact tracing, the litany of updates they make sure to send out through the district’s instant messaging system, as well as getting the word out to local news outlets and parent Facebook groups.

“It’s what you have to do because we’ve got to protect the kids,” Varner said

Weeks into the reopen, things are not always running smoothly. In Varner’s Feb. 15 update, he informed the community of nine active cases of COVID-19 in the district, which comprises approximately 5,000 students and 640 staff members. He also noted that the bus contractors who run the district’s transportation are experiencing ongoing driver shortages, and that students whose bus routes are closed can receive excused absences.

But even schools that are not yet returning in person are facing deeper than usual challenges as the pandemic drags on.

Just a few counties over, in Dauphin, Harrisburg School District has made different decisions, but is facing a similar litany of difficulties. They’re holding onto the fully remote school year for the foreseeable future, but are considering a return for some students in April.

Many of the issues that Mifflin contends with are also present in the urban district — availability of technology, aging facilities, a strained budget and a significant proportion of working families with limited childcare access — as well as the challenges of their student population living in a condensed city and in multigenerational homes. But Acting Superintendent Chris Celmer says the impact the pandemic has had on their student population has made the decision to stay remote go over more easily.

“For the most part, families have been very supportive and unfortunately our families have seen tremendous impact with COVID-19 within their households, their family members, and the impact, it hasn’t been good,” Celmer said. “We’ve seen individuals that work with the organization or partners of our organization that, you know, one week they’re here and two weeks later they’re not. I mean, we’ve seen that play out in front of us.”

Under both state and federal guidelines, Dauphin County is in the highest designation of community transmission. Both guidance systems recommend hybrid learning only for elementary students, and otherwise a fully remote instructional system.

Other school districts in the county have opted to offer some form of in-person or blended returns to learning, but Celmer said he isn’t comfortable pursuing that yet. He said he monitors the city’s biobot data, which shows the virus concentration in the city’s sewage, and regularly consults with local health officials to guide decisions in the district.

“I think there was a lot of hope around the vaccine. Well, there’s tremendous logistical issues with the vaccine as we’re seeing,” Celmer said. “So the vaccine for us this spring isn’t going to be the magic cure all that just flips the switch and we can come back to even a blended —  it’s really going to be, what is the community spread, what is the data.”

Celmer, like many local leaders, likes to keep up with the research on COVID-19 transmission. But that research is yet another flashpoint in the reopen discussions. Recent small-scale studies have shown that when mitigation measures like masks, social distancing and sanitization are enforced in an area that has low community transmission, in-person learning does not have a significant impact on increasing spread. Throughout their guidance, the CDC consistently reemphasizes attention on community transmission and health practices, chiefly masks and distance and small cohort sizes, as necessary for safe in-person learning.

While the new guidance has not changed much materially for Pennsylvania schools, it has placed even greater attention on school reopenings at state levels of government.

Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus spokesperson Jason Gottesman said a return to in-person learning is a “top-level” concern for members and that, while there is currently no legislation to force wider reopens, no solution has been taken off the table.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, have recently backed education officials who are wanting to exercise caution in the return to learning. When Philadelphia teachers protested over what they considered to be a hasty and unsafe return to in-person school earlier this month, state representatives from Philadelphia, including Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), Elizabeth Fiedler (D) and Nikil Saval (D) said they stood with teachers, and supported the demand for comprehensive and safe reopening strategies.  

And while actual legislation has not yet touched on reopening specifically, many of the other issues that school officials have said only make this pandemic worse have shown up in cosponsorship memos and bill drafts. Things like increasing base level funding, reducing the amount of money public schools send to charters, improving building conditions and regulating cyber charters are all potential areas that some officials want to see action on, particularly as educators contend with challenges to student learning and social emotional health that will last far beyond the pandemic’s end.

In 2020, an analysis prepared as part of an ongoing lawsuit estimated a $4.6 billion shortfall in public school funding. And while it doesn’t quite meet that level, Gov. Tom Wolf’s recently proposed budget would put approximately $1.4 billion towards education. However, Republicans in the legislature have already roundly criticized the plan and have not said whether they intend to do any more than flat fund schools this budget cycle.

“It was already difficult pre-pandemic. I suspect it’s going to be compounded,” Estep said. “Unless, at least temporarily there’s enough stimulus funding to get us through, but then once the stimulus dollars are gone, we’re back to square one and we’re going to be struggling.”