By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Getting students back into school buildings this fall is the first choice of state officials who say online education may provide academics but not all of the other services needed by students such as nutrition, social and emotional supports and special education.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera and State Secretary of Health Rachel Levine made it clear in a call with reporters Thursday afternoon that they would like to see students in school this fall and not at home learning online.
“We all agree that being back in school is the best outcome for our children,” Levine said, though she cautioned that it’s difficult to tell what covid case numbers will look like in the fall.
Rivera said the recommended approach is a hybrid schedule through which students attend school part-time, with smaller classes and social distancing. To create the smaller classes and room for social distancing, students would be split into groups that would go to school at opposite times so that school buildings are not filled to capacity and social distancing can be maintained.
On days students are not in school, they would learn remotely.
But Levine stressed that all Pennsylvanians must wear masks, practice proper hand hygiene and follow all state mandates about crowd sizes and social distancing in order to get and maintain the number of Covid-19 cases down to a level at which it is safe to send students to school.
“Our actions as a community impact those things right now,” Levine said.
Rivera stressed there is no “one-size-fits-all” plan and that local school boards need to work with their communities and assess the covid data to determine what is the best approach for their districts. Levine said the state has shared data and best practices with districts from her department, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Rivera said districts’ plans could change as the COVID-19 situation changes over time.
Outside of Pennsylvania, some large city districts including Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified and Prince Georges County in Maryland have announced they will start school with online classes only.
Pittsburgh Public Schools currently has offered parents the opportunity to enroll students in a hybrid schedule or in a full-time online program. But Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said this week the district is also preparing for the possibility that the local coronavirus case counts could be too high to open schools and that all students may need to start classes remotely. Hamlet has said that safety of the students, staff and community will guide the district’s reopening plans.
Rivera said the concern with full-time online learning is that it makes it difficult to provide services to students, particularly those in vulnerable populations and communities.
As Rivera and Levine were talking with reporters, their departments were releasing best practice recommendations for school reopening.
Among the recommendations:
Parents or caretakers are expected to take students’ temperatures each day before sending them to school and keep them home if they have a fever.
Masks must be worn by students and staff at school and on the bus, though some students with disabilities may not be required to wear a mask. Masks can be taken off to eat or drink.
A six-foot separation between desks is recommended for students and everyone in the school buildings is encouraged to social distance. Student seating should be in the same direction and, if possible, classes should be held in auditoriums, gymnasiums or other large spaces or outdoors.
Staggered class times, one-way walking patterns and keeping students in one room with teachers rotating throughout are also recommended practices.
If possible, students should be fed individually packaged meals in the classroom rather than eating in a cafeteria, and gatherings, events and extracurricular activities should be held virtually if possible.
All school districts, charter schools, career and technical centers and intermediate units must create a safety plan, have it approved by the school board, posted to the district website and submit it to the state education department before they start school.
Private schools are also encouraged to adopt and post safety plans.
The Pittsburgh school board plans to approve its safety plan on July 22.
A longer list of guidance from state health and education departments is available here