MAP: School is back in for Pennsylvania students. Find your district’s reopening plan here.

Originally published Aug. 27, 2020 for The PLS Reporter. 

Thousands of Pennsylvania public school students started classes this week, and thousands more will go back to school in the coming weeks amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Local education agencies spent the summer months preparing for the fall semester, as policymakers and stakeholders continue to argue over the safest way to start the year.

With the new year already underway, The PLS Reporter went through the reopening plans for the state’s 500 school districts.

This map was updated Aug. 29 at 9:00 a.m. 

There appears to be strong support for attending school, at least in some way, in-person across the state, with the majority of districts opting for either in-person or blended returns to learning. All local education agencies are offering some form of cyber education for parents who choose not to send their children back to school, whether through virtual instruction from district teachers or through contracted cyber academies. Many districts have received grants to provide computers and internet hotspots to families that don’t otherwise have them.

Still, plans continue to change in the districts that haven’t started back yet.

Reopening decisions have largely been left up to the local education agencies, with guidance provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. All school entities are required to develop a “health and safety plan” detailing their community-wide approach to reopening schools. These plans are largely based around the red, yellow and green phase guidance laid out in Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan for reopening the state.

However, on Aug. 10, PDE released further guidance to schools, recommending different instructional models to schools based on the level of community transmission of COVID-19 in their areas.

The guidelines list three instructional models: full in-person classes, a blended or hybrid option, or fully remote learning. Blended learning is any model of instruction that lowers the number of students in the building enough to allow for social distancing. It can mean anything from only sending certain grade levels to school while others take classes remotely, or grouping students, often by last name, and having them alternate between in-person and remote instruction days.

As a result, many schools changed their reopening plans from their initial health and safety plans, and are beginning the year differently than they anticipated just a few weeks ago. Further clarification from state health officials saying that students would be required to wear masks in schools resulted in another round of superintendent messages to parents. The recent decision from the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association regarding youth sports, arrived at after much public debate, while celebrated by many districts, has also added another layer of complexity to the reopening process. Plus, plans for students with IEPs and 504 plans vary widely from school to school.

The key aspect of all the schools’ plans, as stated in superintendent communications and at the state education level, is flexibility. Should county transmission rates fluctuate, schools may switch into different education models as appropriate, which they were required to outline in their health and safety plans. Many schools are planning to reassess their beginning of the year strategy in October, in order to decide how the rest of the year will look.

Still, challenges remain. Should COVID-19 show up in schools, as it already has among staff at some midstate districts, there is guidance from the state as far as cleaning and quarantining procedures that should take place. While Dr. Rachel Levine, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, said last week that the state will not be the ones shutting down schools, the PDE does provide a threshold at which schools should consider closing, for a few days or entirely, depending on the number of infections and the county transmission rate.

At a House Democratic Policy Committee meeting this week, Fort LeBoeuf School District superintendent Richard Emerick detailed the ways in which his district has prepared for their in-person return to school.

“Carrying on a tradition of academic quality and rigor, while establishing the aforementioned mitigation measures, has been challenging, particularly when the guidance from both the federal and state levels has been less than explicit.”

He said the district spent nearly $600,000 preparing their school buildings and building a cyber option for students who won’t return in person, and while they have been able to afford these costs thus far, he’s concerned about the financial stability of his district and districts across the state as continuing to manage the spread of the virus is necessary. At that same meeting, lawmakers and other school representatives expressed similar concerns about budget shortfalls, as well as widespread substitute teacher shortages, rural internet access and losing students to cyber charters.

“As communities throughout Pennsylvania prepare to return to school in whatever form, each faces the challenge of not only providing quality continuous education to students in new ways, but also ensuring students and staff are physically and emotionally safe as well. The reality of what lies ahead for each of us is staggering, and even more so in our communities with higher needs and fewer resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has lain bare, and further exacerbated, the growing economic and racial inequities among our communities,” Aaron Chapin, Pennsylvania State Education Association vice president, said.

When the legislature returns next week, even more attention will be on education, with multiple bills aimed at schooling during COVID-19 on the House schedule for consideration.