How will Pennsylvania schools reopen this fall? Your questions, answered

By: - July 12, 2020 7:33 am

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After a historic shutdown that kept 1.7 million school children at home for three months, schools across Pennsylvania are racing against the clock to safely open their doors this fall.

Administrators are stockpiling hand sanitizer, masks and infrared thermometers. Teachers are plowing through professional development programs to improve online instruction. And local school boards are logging marathon meetings as they try to balance budgets and adopt safety plans for the upcoming school year.

Schools in Pennsylvania are technically allowed to open their doors this month.

But with barely eight weeks until Labor Day marks the end of summer, and messages from state and federal leaders changing every day, many schools still have not completed their plans for how they’ll operate during the 2020-2021 school year.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about what school in Pennsylvania will look like this fall. The Capital-Star has reviewed news reports, read research published by state agencies and educators, and spoke with experts to answer some of the biggest questions about school reopening across the state.

Are children vulnerable to COVID-19?

Children are less vulnerable to COVID-19 than adults – but they’re not immune to it, either.

A growing number of global studies show that kids simply don’t seem to contract the virus that easily. Even when they do get infected, children don’t tend to manifest a lot of symptoms, said Dr. William Keough, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

We know now that it is possible for asymptomatic patients, including children, to spread the coronavirus. But symptomatic patients pose a bigger risk, Keough said, since they can spread more respiratory droplets when they cough or sneeze.

Since they just aren’t that likely to contract COVID-19, and they aren’t that likely to show symptoms when they do, “children are really not the biggest contributors to community spread,” Keough told the Capital-Star.

That said, it’s not impossible for them to spread it, either. A child who’s infected with COVID-19 could spread it to a teacher, family members, or anyone else who’s in close contact with them throughout the day.

“This is a respiratory virus, so like all respiratory viruses … it just goes person to person, trying to make copies of itself,” Keough said.

A small number of children with COVID-19 have developed a rare, but serious, condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. Researchers are still working to determine the link between COVID-19 and MIS-C. Preliminary data show that children who develop MIS-C recover, but it can make them seriously ill.

What about educators?

It seems unlikely that educators will catch COVID-19 from students. A study in the Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society found that just 13 percent of pediatric COVID-19 cases resulted in transmission from a child to an adult, Keough said.

But adults in any workplace still pose risks to one another. Teachers and support staff will have to share bathrooms, equipment, and facilities when they go back to work.

Schools can limit interactions among staff by staggering schedules, limiting capacity in break rooms and administrative offices, and requiring staff to wear masks and gloves when social distancing is impossible.

Those precautions have kept schools safe in other countries. Preliminary data reviewed by researchers at Brown University found that schools in Ireland, Australia and Denmark accounted for very few new cases of COVID-19 once they reopened, though schools in Israel and South Korea have seen outbreaks that led to new school shutdowns.

But some educators are concerned that those efforts won’t be effective in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of Philadelphia teachers said in a survey that they were “very concerned” about the ability of Pennsylvania’s biggest school district to provide soap, cleaning supplies, masks and gloves if students return to the classroom in the fall.

At a suburban district in York County, teachers expressed worry that their classrooms wouldn’t be disinfected frequently enough.

Right now, it’s unclear if Pennsylvania teachers will decide to leave the workforce because they fear unsafe work environments. Roughly 12 percent of the state’s teachers were at or near the age of retirement in 2018-2019, state data show, putting them in the age bracket that’s most vulnerable to COVID-19.

A report published by groups representing educators, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association, recommends that districts offer virtual work options for staff to prevent a teacher drain this fall, and that the state consider relaxing certain certification requirements to give educators more flexibility in staffing.

What’s the safest way to reopen schools?

Technically speaking, keeping kids at home and transitioning all schools to online learning is the surest way to prevent new cases of COVID-19.

That’s what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended, though it’s facing growing pushback from child welfare advocates and parents, who say that in-person learning and socializing is best for children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged schools to make in-person instruction a priority for the upcoming school year.

Early data from the 2019-2020 school year indicates that kids regressed in their learning during the school shutdowns. And as Keough told the Capital-Star, remote instruction also makes it hard for schools to protect children from neglect, abuse, and malnutrition.

“In whole, as pediatricians, we think that children do develop best when they’re in an in-person, classroom environment,” Keough said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is strongly encouraging schools to offer children some classroom time this fall, even if it’s only for part of the week.

State officials have been touting the findings of a report by the analytics firm Mathematica, which analyzed six scenarios for school reopening in Pennsylvania.

It found that a staggered school week – one where students are split into two groups, which alternate days in a classroom and days learning at home – offered the best balance of safety and educational quality for students and staff.

What will my child’s school look like if it reopens?

That depends largely on the decisions of your local school officials and the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks in your community.

Right now, we know that masks will be mandatory for teachers and students in all school buildings because of an executive order the Wolf administration issued earlier this month.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education have issued dozens of guidelines that schools should consider for this fall.

They include requiring daily temperature checks for students and staff; rearranging classrooms to create more space between students; and creating new hand washing stations to promote hygiene during the school day.

But those guidelines aren’t mandatory. The only real requirement schools are facing this fall is that they have to submit health and safety plans to the Department of Education before they reopen for in-person classes.

To date, fewer than 100 school districts and charter schools have completed their plans, according to Department of Education data.

You can view those schools in the searchable database below. If your district or charter school isn’t on the list, it’s likely that the school board has yet to adopt a plan. Check their meeting agendas to see if there’s an upcoming vote or public discussion.

A review of those plans shows that some districts intend to offer a hybrid educational model that allows students to split the school week between their homes and their classrooms. Many schools also have contingency plans that will allow them to shift to online learning if their communities see upticks in new COVID-19 cases.

Why do children have to wear masks?

The Department of Education originally told schools that it would be difficult to require students to wear masks all day. But the Wolf administration confirmed last week that face coverings would be mandatory in all of Pennsylvania’s public schools, effective July 1.

A growing body of research suggests that face masks are one of the most effective ways of reducing COVID-19 transmission in crowded spaces.

Schools are no exception. Though federal guidelines don’t recommend masks for kids under the age of 2, the Pennsylvania Association of Pediatrics recommends face coverings for school children as a key component of disease control in schools, along with hand washing and social distancing.

“Broadly speaking, children are capable of wearing masks and face coverings, and it will help decrease transmission,” Keough said.

Some children may be reluctant to wear face masks during the day, and some parents have said that universal masking could be upsetting or uncomfortable for kids.

David Lillenstein, president of the Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania, said those concerns are normal. Many children and adults may not like being forced to wear masks all day, he said, but added it’s up to educators and parents to set good examples for children in their care.

He said it’s important for adults to acknowledge their fear and discomfort in order to encourage children to do the same. He also recommends educating kids on how masks can keep people around them safe.

“How we respond to this virus impacts how children respond,” Lillenstein said. “Whatever our reaction is to COVID-19, it’s important that we normalize it a bit.”

How much is all this going to cost?

COVID-19 has dealt a double whammy to school budgets.

Business shutdowns and job losses are expected to cause a combined $1 billion shortfall in local revenue sources, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Administrators estimates.

At the same time, schools are on the hook for a dizzying number of new expenses, from laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students to masks, gloves, hand sanitizer for teachers.

Some schools have to hire new personnel to provide day care for their employees’ children; others are retrofitting their facilities to allow for social distancing between students. One of the biggest headaches of all will be the increased cost of transportation as schools coordinate staggered schedules to try to prevent crowding on buses.

Many schools may choose to extend the 2020-2021 school year to make up for learning losses this spring. That brings additional costs for school meals.

All told, the upcoming school year could bring as much as $365 million in new costs for Pennsylvania school districts, according to a calculator from the Learning Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based research firm. Taking into account revenue losses, the total damage to schools could surpass $10 billion over the next two years.

State lawmakers have allocated some federal funds to help schools cover new costs for the upcoming school year. But many advocates and education leaders say it won’t be nearly enough to keep students and teachers safe, and are calling on Congress to pass another stimulus package this summer to avert financial catastrophe in the nation’s schools this fall.

The U.S. House has already passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which provides nearly $1 trillion in federal aid to local governments.

Even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week that America “can’t get back to normal if the kids are not back in school,” he has allowed the HEROES Act to languish in the Senate, and says the chamber will develop its own plan for another stimulus package.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.