Williamsport -- Although school summer vacations technically just began, school administrators and school boards will be hard at work throughout the summer months to determine how in-class learning might resume this fall.
The Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce and UPMC partnered to host a virtual public forum today, at which Matt Stem, Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education for the PA Department of Education, had the opportunity to address area school superintendents' questions about the guidelines surrounding opening schools for summer and fall instruction.
Stem explained some of the difficulties of establishing a set of guidelines that could apply to school systems across the state. There are 1.7 million students in 500 different school districts across Pa., Stem said. Additionally, 135,000 charter school students and more than 67,000 students in career and technical schools add to the diverse mix of learning environments.
"It's critically important to recognize the diversity and to account for the demographic differences," said Stem, when outlining guidelines for the development of Health and Safety Plans.
In May 2020, the CDC released two documents to assist states and local education agencies (LEA) in planning for a gradual scale up and eventual reopening of schools: the Schools Decision Tree and the Interim Guidance for Schools and Day Camps. These documents along with guidelines from DOH and the Process to Reopen Pennsylvania provide the foundation for this guidance from PA Dept. of Education.
Recognizing that each school entity is unique and that all plans for the upcoming year must reflect local needs, each district is tasked with creating a Health and Safety Plan which will serve as the local guidelines for all school reopening activities. Schools must submit their approved Health and Safety Plans (and any questions) to the Pennsylvania Department of Education and post the plans on the school's publicly available website prior to the reopening of school and providing services to students, which can be done as early as July 1, 2020.
"The guiding principle is that the local level needs to individualize based on their population's needs," said Stem.
Local superintendents participating in the forum included Mike Pawlik of East Lycoming Township, Jerry McLaughlin of Loyalsock Township, Daphne Bowers of Montgomery, Brian Ulmer of Jersey Shore, and Tim Bowers of the Williamsport Area School District.
All are faced with tailoring their Health and Safety Plans, along with input from school board members, community members, and parents, to meet the needs of their unique school entities and keep their students and faculty as safe as possible.
Mike Pawlik expressed concern over the lack of granular detail in the current set of guidelines, hoping more specifics would be forthcoming.
"We cause unintended consequences when guidelines are so rigid," answered Stem. He did say that clarifications would be forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead, based on best practices and the continual engagement with medical professionals. "It's unlikely we'll draw a hard line in the sand," said Stem.
Daphne Bowers said she was pleased to be given leeway for local decisions and input from the community and parents. "We're in green now," Bowers said, "what if we go into yellow or red? How do we create a plan to adapt?"
Counties may experience some cycling back and forth between less restrictive to more restrictive designations as public health indicators improve or worsen. "This means that each school should account for changing conditions and include those scenarios in their local Health and Safety Plans," according to the Dept. of Education.
Other questions remain. How do schools manage the dual approach of in-class learning and remote learning for families who do not feel comfortable returning to the facility? Jersey Shore Superintendent Brian Ulmer said that broadband access is a huge issue in the development of a robust online platform.
Dr. Rutul Dalal, medical director of UPMC Susquehanna Internal Medicine, discussed new protocols such as wearing masks during the school day, temperature checks, staggering the school day, keeping classroom gatherings to 25 people or fewer, all "as a means to reduce impact of infected individuals" on others.
"The virus is here to stay awhile," Dr. Dalal said. "We are never going to be at zero," he said, "but don't panic. We cannot let it rule our lives."
Protocols related to cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and ventilation will be important.
Overall, the Department of Education will follow a process for updating the guidelines, including monitoring parent and educator feedback, engaging the insight of medical professionals including realtime feedback from around the world, and relying on empirical data from researchers.
A clear message was that guidelines are not a one-size-fits-all expectation.
"I believe there will be guidelines we can't meet," said Tim Bowers. "We will say [to parents], here's what we can do, and here's what we can't do. We will be transparent," he said.