Big Spring School District Superintendent Richard Fry said school districts are working to find ways to deliver instruction to all students remotely. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools to remain closed until at least April 6 due to the coronavirus.
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They’re also developing plans if schools are closed for an even longer period, which Wolf and state officials have said is possible.
“The most frustrating thing is people just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
“It’d be nice if we knew we were coming to school on April 6,” he said, adding that he understands why such certainty is impossible. “It’s just the unknown. School leaders can make plans when they know what the future holds.”
Wolf had already closed public schools all last week and had ordered schools to be closed this week. Under Wolf’s order, districts could re-open schools for staff to get reorganized starting April 7 and students could return April 9.
The following day is Good Friday, when schools are typically closed.
“We thought that was rather odd timing ourselves,” DiRocco said. “My guess is most districts will take that Friday off.” Still, if schools can re-open, he said there would be value in having kids resume their routine and teachers could give students some homework.
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Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf provides an update on the coronavirus known as COVID-19 on March 12, 2020.
‘They want to be teaching’
Beginning Tuesday, schools can get technical assistance from the state’s intermediate units to develop educational plans for students, Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera said. He said the intermediate units can help districts devise plans for students with disabilities and English language learners.
School districts have been working to deliver remote instruction to students but they face the enormous challenge of doing so in a way that is fair to all of their students.
Some students from low-income families may not have a computer or internet access at home. Some students with special needs receive extra attention and additional therapies they normally receive in a school setting, educators say.
In the Lower Dauphin School District, teachers and principals have been working to deliver some kind of enrichment to students, said Jim Hazen, a spokesman. Some teachers have been reading stories and posting them on YouTube for younger students, he said.
The district is also working with parents to assess if they have a technology gap and is working to loan computers to families who need them, Hazen said. Students in Lower Dauphin’s middle school and high school get laptops but computers aren’t given to elementary students. Hazen said the district is connecting families to Comcast, which is offering two months of free internet service to low-income families.
The district is also working on more formal lessons to deliver instruction at home.
“Our staff is at their best when they’re with their kids,” Hazen said. “They want to be teaching. We understand why they can’t but they want to be back in the classroom with their students.”
Some families may have solid wi-fi connections and a good computer but that doesn’t resolve every issue, DiRocco said.
Some families “may have one computer and four kids in the house,” DiRocco said. “How do you ration that out?”
Dan Gleiter / PennLive
Vehicles arrive at Central Dauphin East High School. During the coronavirus COVID-19 shutdown, drive-through distribution of breakfast and lunch will be available each weekday from 8:30 a.m. through 11:00 a.m. at Central Dauphin East High School and Swatara Middle School. This first-come, first-served program is for all resident children in the district ages 18 and under, March 17, 2020.
The contents of a school lunch at Central Dauphin East High School. During the coronavirus COVID-19 shutdown, drive-through distribution of breakfast and lunch will be available each weekday from 8:30 a.m. through 11:00 a.m. at Central Dauphin East High School and Swatara Middle School. This first-come, first-served program is for all resident children in the district ages 18 and under, March 17, 2020.
Kim Farris, left, and Cynthia Euler deliver meals to a family at Central Dauphin East High School. During the coronavirus COVID-19 shutdown, drive-through distribution of breakfast and lunch will be available each weekday from 8:30 a.m. through 11:00 a.m. at Central Dauphin East High School and Swatara Middle School. This first-come, first-served program is for all resident children in the district ages 18 and under, March 17, 2020.
‘Unprecedented in our history’
Dr. Richard Fry, the superintendent of the Big Spring School District, said the state’s decision to keep schools closed until April 6 gives districts more time to prepare if the shutdown lasts for several weeks.
“If it becomes an extended period, this extra week will go a long way in helping us figure out what that looks like,” Fry said.
Fry said the district is working to develop methods of instructing students remotely. It’s a particular challenge for the district’s students with special needs.
“We want to make sure we’re getting all of our kids enrichment activities,” Fry said. “To move to true instructional days we need to make sure we’re doing that in a way that benefits all of our students.”
“We have non-verbal students that online learning is just not an option,” Fry said.
The district will be working with families to develop lessons that can be delivered in the home.
Schools are being tested in a manner they have never encountered before, DiRocco said. Districts are being asked to ramp up quickly if schools can re-open, while simultaneously preparing for an extended period of teaching remotely.
“This is severely unprecedented in our history and we’re asking districts to pivot on a dime here,” DiRocco said.
“They’re asking school leaders to do a lot in a short time, with limited staff.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing public school teachers, welcomed the extended closure of the schools for the safety of the students and staff. The union said the state has taken smart steps to help schools navigate a difficult time.
Rivera canceled standardized testing for students in career and technical education (CTE) programs for the 2019-20 school year. Last week, the state Department of Education canceled all PSSA testing and Keystone exams for the 2019-20 school year, as well as the Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment.
Schools won’t be penalized if they don’t meet the state’s requirement of providing 180 days of instruction, the Wolf administration said last week. Still, the PSEA is pushing lawmakers to approve legislation waiving the 180-day requirement, said Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman.
“One of the things we’ve been doing at PSEA is convening with lawmakers that we have flexibility around the 180-day requirement,” Lilienthal said. “If we are in a situation that we’re closed for a long period of time, we need guidance on what that means.”
Schools this year have had the option of flexible instruction days, initially designed so schools could deliver instruction during snowy weather. Most schools haven’t been approved for the flexible days and state law only provides five flexible days. Plus, districts face the challenges of making sure their instruction is accessible to everyone.
For now, educators are trying to solve a host of problems. In many ways, they are rising to meet the challenges, DiRocco said. He marveled at how quickly some schools set up their grab-and-go meals, which some districts have been providing for a week.
Other educators are impressed by the resolve of their teachers and principals. When asked what he hears most from teachers and staff, Fry said the common refrain is, “What more can I do?”
“They want to be working with kids,” Fry said. “They want to be helping families. It’s trying to define our new normal.”
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