Education official: Part-time schedules, small groups best way to reduce COVID-19 transmission when schools reopen

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Pennsylvania education officials are urging schools across the state to offer some form of in-person instruction this fall, a top education official said Wednesday, though new research shows that part-time schedules with small groups of students may be the most effective way to minimize the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

The announcement by Deputy Education Secretary Matthew Stem represents a stronger stance than the one the Pennsylvania Department of Education took last month, when it issued guidelines for K-12 school operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The guidelines don’t technically require schools to offer in-person instruction when they kick off the 2020-2020 school year. 

But Stem told the state Board of Education on Wednesday that mounting evidence shows that students “benefit tremendously” from in-person classes, even if they are difficult to coordinate during a pandemic. 

“While we recognize that there are very significant challenges in some schools to providing in-person instruction, we have to be intellectually honest in the fact that students will benefit from it,” Stem told the board during a virtual meeting. “We strongly encourage districts to do everything they can to find ways to build in-person instruction into their models.”

Educators and elected officials across the United States are scrambling to find the safest ways to reopen schools as the nation battles a troubling surge in COVID-19 cases.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that remote learning is the safest way to ensure that schools won’t become sources of community transmission in the fall. 

But leaders are facing mounting pressure from parents and child welfare advocates, who say the lack of classroom instruction could put a generation of children behind in their education. 

Stem said Wednesday that school leaders face “an incredibly challenging task” as they balance educational needs and public health concerns in their communities. 

But he said Pennsylvania now has a clearer image of how to prevent schools from becoming hotbeds of COVID-19 transmission, thanks to first-in-the-nation research the Department of Education published late last month. 

In partnership with the research firm Mathematica, the Education Department analyzed seven reopening scenarios for schools this fall, ranging from a business-as-usual school day to a model where students attend in-person classes just one day a week.

That research found that “any reopening of schools is likely to result in increased infection among children, teachers and support staff.”

But it also found that dividing students into small groups that attend school one or two days a week “is likely to substantially slow the rate of infection spread.”

Ultimately, it’s up to schools to decide if they’ll heed that advice. 

Pennsylvania officials have given schools wide latitude in how they’ll prevent COVID-19 outbreaks when they reopen, requiring only that they adopt health and safety plans, and submit them to the state if they want to resume in-person instruction. 

The guidelines the Education Department offered on how to prevent transmission among students and staff are not enforceable. That means schools will decide how — and if — they will stagger classes to put more space between students; keep students home on certain days to clean facilities; or offer all their classes online. 

Any plan a school adopts has to be flexible, Stem said, and educators ought to be ready to shift to remote learning if there are COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities. 

“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Stem said. “And we’re going to do everything we can by our school districts throughout this journey.”