State pushes hybrid school week as COVID-19 cases surge

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As hundreds of Pennsylvania school districts hammer out plans to reopen their doors this fall, Pennsylvania’s top education official has endorsed a hybrid learning model that allows children to attend school in-person only part of the week.

The Thursday announcement by Education Secretary Pedro Rivera came one day after the Wolf administration cracked down on nightclubs, bars and restaurants to curb a weeks-long surge in new COVID-19 cases.

Speaking to reporters during a conference call, Rivera said that a hybrid learning model would offer most districts a balance between “the best practices from both a public health perspective and a public education perspective.”

The Philadelphia school district became the latest school system in Pennsylvania to announce a hybrid instruction model when it unveiled its reopening plan on Wednesday. The plan calls for children to attend classes in school two days a week and to spend the rest of their time in online classes.

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The news was met with alarm from some parents, who said it would be impossible to juggle work schedules with irregular school days.

But more districts could soon follow suit.

State officials have largely left it up to Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts to decide how to offer instruction this fall. To date, barely 100 schools have told the state how they plan to open their doors, Rivera said Thursday.

Schools are bound by few requirements if they want to offer in-person instruction. They must submit health and safety plans to the state, and must enforce Gov. Tom Wolf’s universal mask order, which calls on children and adults to wear masks in public places.

“I understand [the masking order] is going to be challenging, but it is very, very important,” said Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who joined Rivera on the press call Thursday.

Beyond that, state officials are asking schools to consider a list of guidelines, first issued in June and updated Thursday, that call for schools to serve students lunch at their desks, limit the number of children on playgrounds, and stagger class times to prevent crowding in school hallways.

Some schools have announced plans to offer full-time in-person instruction this year.

But as COVID-19 cases surge in southern states, and experts warn that outbreaks could worsen in the northeast, some education leaders in Pennsylvania are doubtful that in-person instruction will be possible in eight weeks’ time.

The president of the state’s largest teachers union on Thursday called on Gov. Tom Wolf to direct schools to draft plans for a full transition to remote learning.

“An increasing number of Pennsylvania educators and parents are concerned that reopening schools for in-person instruction poses significant health risks that, in the current environment, may be impossible to completely prevent,” Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said in a letter to Wolf.

School leaders have faced mounting pressure in recent weeks to decide how they’ll serve students in the fall, even as they heed conflicting messages from state and federal leaders while COVID-19 cases spread uncontrollably in parts of the country.

The Trump administration said Thursday that schools should open full-time this fall.

Other nations have reopened schools without seeing uncontrollable outbreaks of COVID-19.

However, outbreaks in the United States are currently unrivaled in the developed world, data from the New York Times show. Educators say that they cannot keep students and staff safe without an infusion of federal aid.