When it comes to school communities, response to the coronavirus entails numerous moving and fluid parts.
Heads of school districts, some of the size of small towns, are considering everything from the proper sanitation of schools, the promotion of best hygiene practices to students and faculty; and faced with the potential of school closure, planning remote learning curriculum.
One of the most compelling areas is that of the nutritional needs of students: School officials are scrambling to find answers to how will they feed sizable portions of their student population enrolled in federal reduced or free lunch programs if schools are canceled? For some kids, public schools are the place where they get solid meals.
“I have not come up with an answer,” said Christopher, whose district provides the nutritional program for 2,000 students. “It’s all uncharted territory.”
The seeming wealth gap implicates not just nutritional needs, but basic technological resources among families.
As district prepare for worst-case scenarios of potential protracted school closures, school officials are weighing the dilemma that some of their students may not have the technological resources at home to support remote learning. That includes internet service and laptops, computers, and even musical instruments.
Morgan Horton, a spokeswoman for the East Pennsboro Area School District, said officials there have already broached that hurdle.
“We’ll be asking faculty to prepare lessons that can be done by all our students,” she said.
Yet even as school officials lean into state and federal authorities for guidance, those same authorities are instructing school officials to turn to local authorities for guidance.
In addition to stressing good hygiene protocol, the Department of Education, for instance, continues to encourage districts to work with local health and emergency officials.
For now, it’s part of a learning process for everyone involved.
“It would be great if somebody had all the answers and could tell us what to do,” said Jim Hazen, spokesman for the Lower Dauphin School District. “That would be ideal. In terms of school safety, state and federal officials will tell you that any emergency response starts at the local level. As you need assistance, you go to the county, state and federal level. So while it would be great if somebody had all answers, this is the Homeland Security enterprise. The local level deals first then moves up that chain of command.”
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The State College Area School District announced it will remain out of session for students until March 20.
Just about every school has a so-called Safe School Plan that addresses such emergency situations as pandemics. For most school districts, annual flu outbreaks and the managing of school communities during the flu season is par for the course during any given school year.
Indeed, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak provided some lessons for school officials to prepare for these kinds of emergency situations.
“We are not starting at zero,” Christopher said.
Tredinnick said school officials are putting a lot of energy into following general guidelines, but are bracing for specific situations to respond appropriately.
“The general overall feeling in society is that of unease,” he said. “Fear has spread faster than scientific knowledge. It’s natural because people aren’t as comfortable or familiar that they are going to have a sense of what if. School districts aren’t immune to that. The danger is getting caught too much in the hypothetical. You can’t answer all the what ifs if you don’t have all the information.”
School districts across central Pennsylvania may not be making wholesale sweeping decisions about closures, but they are making smaller decisions about activities and programs.
Derry Township School District, for instance, which houses 3,500 students on a single three-school campus, recently canceled a field trip to New York City after the city confirmed its first case of covid-19.
Last week, however, practically the entire Derry Township High School junior class traveled to Washington, D.C., on a field trip to historic landmarks.
Lower Dauphin School District canceled its band trip to an indoor competition in New Jersey, which has active coronavirus cases and has seen one fatality.
Many schools have already hosted their spring musicals, so that’s one less large gathering event for many to worry about.
But almost daily officials are looking at activities and programs and weighing them against potential risks.
“We haven’t had anything we’ve had to cancel ourselves, but that’s within the realm of possibility,” Hazen said. “We haven’t reached that level yet. We are playing a waiting game and seeing how this plays out.”
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