By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Whether in K-12 schools or on college campuses, education formats in the fall are likely to vary from institution to institution based on guidance provided by the state Department of Education.
Guidelines issued by Gov. Tom Wolf this morning stated that elementary and secondary schools in the state’s yellow and green phases can resume in-person instruction and activities starting July 1 and postsecondary institutions and adult basic education programs can resume on July 5. Those programs include colleges, universities, seminaries and trade schools.
In both instances, the schools and programs must develop health and safety plans based on guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Health Department and must adhere to proper social distancing requirements.
For school districts, the plans to resume and the health and safety guidelines created must be developed and approved by the local school board, based on that district’s needs and facilities’ accommodations. Those plans then must be presented to the Department of Education.
State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said in a morning press conference that each district can create a plan that works best for its students and community and the size of its buildings. For instance, if social distancing can be maintained then in-person attendance can take place. In smaller buildings where social distancing can’t be maintained, districts can choose either a hybrid plan of part in-person and part remote or remain entirely remote.
The same applies to after-school activities. Rivera said the PIAA is working on guidelines for sanctioned sports.
That means education is going to look from community to community and institution to institution throughout the state as the school year resumes.
“We fully expect students to return to classrooms in some capacity and are confident that schools will use this guidance to build a framework that best meets the unique needs of their students and communities,” Rivera said.
Rivera did not give specific guidance on how students and teachers with compromised immune systems and other vulnerable populations would be protected in districts where in-person attendance takes place. He said districts can create their own protections and that the state will be offering further guidance on safe reopenings Friday.
When the guidance is released it will not specify how many students may occupy a classroom or provide an occupancy model, Rivera said. The guidance will provide a bit more specificity on how much space should be kept between students and schools can use that information to organize their classrooms.
It is also expected to address such issues as how to respond to student fevers and directives on how college dormitories could operate.
According to state guidelines released today, the health and safety plans of schools must include a pandemic coordinator or team and steps to protect high-risk children and staff.
They must also include processes for monitoring children and staff for symptoms, guidelines for hygiene practices, and the use of face masks, processes for clearing and disinfecting, and protocols for social distancing.
This applies to school districts, charter schools, cyber charter schools, career, and technical centers and intermediate units. Non-public schools are encouraged to do the same and post their plans to their websites.
The plans after being approved by school boards and submitted to the education department must also be posted on school websites.
The state’s permission for schools to resume in-person instruction as of July 1, the first day of the 2020-2021 school year means that summer remedial and enrichment programs could be held in-person if health and safety measures are met. It’s unclear if any local districts will do so, although some summer camps have already announced they plan to operate.
When asked if parents don’t want to send their children back into the classroom, will schools be required to provide remote education, Rivera said those issues should be worked out between parents, school boards and local health agencies in each district.
Rivera said some of the costs of equipment that schools will have to purchase such as masks, other personal protection equipment, and cleaning material will be covered from funds from the federal CARES Act and he has asked the state legislature to consider helping with the costs as well.
He said he is also working with the General Assembly on funding for transportation in anticipation of the district’s struggling with additional transportation costs in order to maintain social distancing on school buses.
When a reporter raised the question of whether Rivera expected a second round of the virus to disrupt education in the fall or winter, he said that all schools should be prepared for that possibility.
“We are preparing for the best in terms of school openings and we are also preparing for the worst. (Schools) need to ensure the plans that they are putting in place focus on instruction but also make sure students and staff are safe,” Riviera said. “Every strategy can be utilized in every type of modality.”