Though state guidelines now allow for a July 1 start-up date, local school districts will not be ready to resume in-person instruction and activities until late August at the earliest.
Carlisle, Big Spring and Mechanicsburg are among the districts in the early stages of preparing comprehensive plans to reopen buildings that were shuttered this spring to contain the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic forced districts to pivot and within weeks launch programs that support total online instruction.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education Wednesday released guidelines that enable elementary and secondary schools in the state’s yellow and green phases to resume in-person instruction and activities starting July 1 — the first day of the new fiscal year for public school districts.
To reopen, districts must first develop health and safety plans based on guidelines from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These plans must be approved by the local school board and posted on the district website to keep families informed.
Districts will have to identify a pandemic coordinator, ensure those at higher risk of infection are protected, monitor for symptoms, issue hygiene guidelines and address cleaning, face masks and social distancing.
The state guidelines allow for flexibility so that districts can tailor their plans to their community and the needs of their learners. The plans must be submitted to the Education Department.
With almost 500 districts in Pennsylvania, the state agency needed an approach that was customizable, said Richard Fry, superintendent of the Big Spring School District. “These guidelines are a good start to provide districts the information they need to build their plans. We now have a framework to communicate with our community.”
A plan to reopen buildings in late August will be a topic of discussion at upcoming school board meetings this summer, said Christina Spielbauer, superintendent of the Carlisle Area School District. She added results were due back Wednesday on a survey sent out to families asking for input on how the district can improve the delivery of online instruction should conditions warrant a return to that method.
Survey data will be reviewed and analyzed prior to meetings that are being scheduled with administrative teams, parent groups and other stakeholders, Spielbauer said. The purpose of the stakeholder meetings is to gather input on concerns people may have about reopening schools and resuming in-person instruction.
Local districts are looking at options along a continuum of delivery methods ranging from total online instruction to a return of pre-COVID in-person instruction. In between, there are a variety of different hybrid options that combine elements of both ends of the spectrum. Any plan would need to address the health and safety of students and staff in the context of transportation, building capacity and the need for social distancing.
“What does social distancing look like on a bus?” Fry asked. He added, based on the square footage of a typical classroom, Big Spring may only be able to accommodate 12 to 14 students per classroom at a time.
One option under review is a hybrid where students in Group A attend school for in-person instruction on Mondays and Wednesdays while students in Group B attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be designated as planning or online instruction days.
Under this option, Big Spring students will have two days of in-person instruction and three days of online instruction at home, Fry said. The exception may be special needs students who may attend school all five days because their class sizes already tend to be small enough to allow for social distancing.
Big Spring is focusing on four tiers of instructional delivery. Tier one is completely online. Tier two is a hybrid. Tier three is mostly in-person with restrictive social distancing. Tier four is a return to pre-COVID interactions.
The district organized its planning strategy around seven different subgroups — each tasked with different part of the overall reopening plan, Fry said. The seven groups are Health and Safety, Learning, Staffing/Personnel, Food Service, Transportation, Athletics/Extracurricular Activities and School Spaces.
The Learning subgroup is tackling not only the issues associated with academics but the emotional well-being of students, Fry said. He defined School Spaces as not just classrooms and offices, but hallways and such common areas as cafeterias, gymnasiums and auditoriums. The subgroups consist of district staff and administrators working in consultation with local health care professionals.
Over the next day or so, Big Spring will communicate to local families the basic details of the state reopening guidelines for schools, Fry said. He added, within 10 days, the district will launch a Thought Exchange to gather input on the concerns people may have about reopening the schools. Thought Exchange is an online platform Big Spring uses to gather input and to gauge public sentiment on issues that drive district policy.
The goal is to get a plan to the Big Spring School Board by July 27 that provides details on each of the four tiers, Fry said. He added, at some point during the summer, the district will be asking families what option they will be choosing for their children. That information will be vital going forward to put in place the structures needed to start the 2020-2021 school year.
“We acknowledge that some families may not feel comfortable sending their student to school especially with the modifications planned for the classrooms,” Fry said. “We will give them information to work with on deciding the best way to educate their child.”
Families considering childcare options this summer may also need childcare next school year depending on what options are developed by administrators, Mark Leidy, Superintendent of the Mechanicsburg Area School District, said in a video posted June 2 on the district website. He added there is a real possibility that not all children will be able to attend school more than a few days a week.
Though Leidy provided no details, his comments suggest Mechanicsburg may be considering a hybrid option similar to Big Spring’s where students alternate between in-person and online instruction. Like Carlisle and Big Spring, Mechanicsburg is seeking input from families to develop contingencies around schedules, staffing, transportation and the delivery of instruction.
“The health and safety of all stakeholders will be paramount in the decisions that we make,” Leidy said in the video. “We are meeting regularly with a task force of in-house experts and medical professionals from our area. This group reviews continuously updated guidance from the CDC, the department of health and other agencies.”
As with Fry, Leidy also mentioned a continuum of options ranging from traditional in-person instruction to various hybrids to an updated program of online instruction.
“Thank you for showing us grace, trusting us and working beside us as we found ways to pivot towards a learning-at-home model that was literally designed in days and delivered with the best of intentions,” Leidy told Mechanicsburg families. “We have shown that we can do great things in the face of adversity. The work and decisions that lie ahead will be challenging but I know we will continue to strive to do what is best for our students and the community as a whole.”
Photos: Big Spring hosts graduating seniors car parade Friday