Three days of talk in Harrisburg yield scant consensus on critical school reopening questions

Schools in Pennsylvania are preparing to reopen after being closed since March. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Rich Askey is slated to start another year in the Harrisburg City School District this fall, where he’s taught music for most of his three-decade career.

But Askey still doesn’t know what his day will look like, or even how schools will offer extracurricular activities such as chorus, as COVID-19 continues to burn through much of the United States.

“Everybody’s trying to be as creative as possible to give the students the best opportunities,” Askey, who also serves as president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said during a state House Education Committee hearing Wednesday. “But it just depends on the situation in the local district, and the plans have to be made there.”

Pennsylvania educators and school administrators told lawmakers in a series of hearings this week that countless questions remain unanswered as they try to figure out how to safely educate students this fall. 

Among them: How far apart should students sit when they’re in class? How many children should be on a school bus? If there’s an outbreak in a community, at what point should schools shut down? What happens if a school staff member gets sick on the job?

Educators say that guidelines from state, federal and local leaders have been lackluster and sometimes contradictory. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control, for instance, recommended spacing student desks six feet apart to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The state Department of Education recommended six feet of space “when feasible” in the non-enforceable guidelines it issued in June.

But according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, county health officials in Bucks and Chester County have said three feet of distance would be acceptable – a recommendation backed up by the American Association of Pediatrics.

The state Department of Health also has offered some guidance to schools on how to handle COVID-19 cases on campus, reportedly instructing them to notify the state of positive tests so public health workers can trace the patient’s close contacts.

But “that was the greatest extent of the guidance” school administrators received, Dr. Shane Hodgkiss, superintendent of Bermudian Area School District in York County, said Wednesday. 

And when it comes to closing schools to contain an outbreak, “we keep hearing it’ll be handled on a case-by-case basis,” Hodgkiss added. 

Hodgkiss said the uncertainty could create serious staffing headaches, especially since school leaders already say they may be unable to hire enough teachers, substitute teachers and bus drivers to keep schools running smoothly. 

“What’s it going to look like if I have a number of staff members who have symptoms and have to stay home?” Hodgkiss said. “It’s a very real reality school districts are facing, but there are no numbers [from the state] associated with that.”

PSEA, which is Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union, and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, have both called on state officials to strengthen the guidelines they’ve offered to schools.

But state officials have largely left it up to local leaders to decide how and when to open their doors this fall, requiring only that they adopt health and safety plans before they resume in-person instruction. 

Beyond that, they have near total license to develop disease mitigation strategies and roadmaps for online learning.

That’s required educators to prepare for all possible scenarios this summer, especially once COVID-19 outbreaks in other states foiled Pennsylvania’s tentative progress against the disease. 

“We realize it’s still a moving target, we’re hopeful that again the schools will open in the fall, but… how prepared are you for 100-percent virtual learning?” House Education Committee Chairman Curt Sonney, R-Erie, asked panelists at one point on Wednesday.

Some districts have decided to start the school year entirely online in the hopes that school buildings can reopen when COVID-19 cases subside. But even among them, there’s little consensus on the best methods for instruction. 

Harrisburg City School District, which will start its year virtually, is requiring its staff to deliver lessons in classrooms and livestream them to students. 

But there’s no such requirement in Philadelphia, where students will attend virtual classes at least until November.