Department of Education offers guidelines for 2020-2021 school year, which could start as soon as July 1

Group seating may be a thing of the past in COVID-era schools. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools will be permitted to resume in-person classes as early as July 1, state officials announced Wednesday, though classrooms, cafeterias and playing fields could look much different than they did before they closed in March. 

Guidelines published by the Pennsylvania Department of Education suggest that schools consider serving meals to students at their desks; limiting travel for intramural sporting events; conducting routine temperature checks and relaxing attendance policies for faculty and staff to limit the transmission of COVID-19 as they reopen.

Right now, however, the guidelines are simply that — suggestions, not enforceable regulations. But Education Secretary Pedro Rivera says that they represent the best practices that the state can offer to protect students and staff from a surge of COVID-19 cases. 

“We are planning for the best in terms of school opening, but we are preparing for the worst,” Rivera told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. He added, “It’s important that we provide guidance, but also flexibility for school leaders to customize their plans around their specific learners and their needs.”

The Education Department also confirmed Wednesday that schools in yellow- and green-phase counties may open for in-person instruction on July 1 – a policy that would allow schools to theoretically begin the 2020-2021 school year early if they want to pilot new programs with students or make up for lost instruction time from the spring.

Schools in red-phase counties, which currently include Philadelphia and most of its suburbs, can’t reopen their doors until stay-at-home orders are lifted. 

Gov. Tom Wolf said those counties will be moved to the yellow phase on Friday, but any county in Pennsylvania could find itself under renewed restrictions if it sees a quick uptick in COVID-19 cases. 

The education department did issue one firm requirement for schools Wednesday: that they adopt health and safety plans identifying the steps they’ll take to protect students and staff when classes resume. 

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Schools must submit those plans to the state and post them publicly on their websites. Beyond that, however, they have broad latitude to implement the suggestions that education officials outlined Wednesday. 

Some of those suggestions include: 

  • Identifying an isolation room or area to separate anyone who exhibits COVID-19like symptoms.
  • Closing off areas used by a sick person and do not use before cleaning and disinfection.
  • Implementing flexible sick leave policies and practices, if feasible.
  • Broadcasting regular announcements on reducing the spread of COVID-19.
  • Taking steps to limit or prohibit the use of communal drinking fountains and providing safe alternatives for providing water when possible.
  • Creating staggered schedules to limit the number of individuals in classrooms and other spaces. (CDC recommends no more than 25 individuals including  staff).
  • Establishing distances (CDC recommends 6 feet) between student desks/seating and other social distancing practices to the maximum extent feasible and appropriate.
  • Limiting gatherings, events, and extracurricular activities to those that can maintain social distancing.
  • Requiring enhanced surveillance and testing for any contact sports to minimize higher risk of transmission in participating athletes.

The state also recommends that schools enforce the use of masks and face shields among all adult staff.

But Pennsylvania’s guidelines don’t officially recommend masks for kids, noting that “face coverings may be challenging for students (especially younger students or students with special needs) to wear in all-day settings such as schools.”

Schools are required to provide 180 days of instruction in Pennsylvania. The state waived that requirement for schools this year, but lawmakers strengthened it last month in a piece of legislation they passed along with the state budget. 

The new provision in Pennsylvania’s school code requires schools to provide a minimum of 180 days of instruction even when the state is under an emergency declaration. Rivera said Wednesday that he hopes lawmakers will still grant him the authority to waive such mandates “that may not be attainable in the COVID-19 era of education.