State says schools in yellow and green areas can reopen July 1
Gov. Wolf and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera said Wednesday that schools in designated green- and yellow-phase counties could reopen for in-person instruction as early as July 1 as long as they follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health.
Schools will be required to develop a health and safety plan based on these guidelines, which Wolf said would be released later this month. He called the state’s guidance “a starting point” that will “continue to evolve as further research, data and resources become available.”
He indicated that the state guidance would include some “non-negotiables” related to social distancing, cleaning requirements, and health monitoring.
“There are required elements under this plan,” he said in a call with reporters from around the state.
Preliminary guidance on the PDE website indicates that K-12 school districts in the yellow phase of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan will need to identify pandemic coordinators and teams on health and safety preparedness and response. Schools will be required to have protocols regarding identifying and quarantining people who are symptomatic with COVID-19 and will restrict the use of cafeterias and other large meeting spaces. And there must be guidelines for overall hygiene and handwashing, among other requirements.
Still, Rivera acknowledged that the form that schools’ opening may take will be different depending on their location and the needs of individual communities and that the state wants to allow maximum flexibility.
“We are planning for the best, we are preparing for the worst,” he said. The aim of the guidance is to focus on instruction and promote health and safety while being flexible.
Philadelphia is scheduled to enter the yellow phase at the end of this week, although recent unrest over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has thrown some uncertainty into that plan.
Superintendent William Hite has already said that he anticipates school reopening conditions will undoubtedly vary within Philadelphia as well. Variations will depend on the size and conditions of school buildings and whether they are overcrowded or underutilized, among other factors, he said.
Hite has already decided that summer school in Philadelphia will be virtual, and the District has announced a plan to serve more than 35,000 students. Rivera said that the state used the July 1 date because that is the official beginning of the next school year.
On a call Tuesday that was organized by the Policy Lab of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Hite said the District has 10 working groups addressing a variety of issues related to what school will look like in the fall. He said they are preparing for three scenarios: full in-person school, full online school, and some kind of hybrid.
“The group is looking at three reopening scenarios, and all exist on a continuum, and like other districts across the country, we are preparing for a range of interventions,” Hite said. “And what that means is that we’re not looking for a one-size-fits-all approach, because our schools are very different, they serve different populations, they have different capacities and utilization percentages. And so we have to think about it in a flex way in terms of making sure that the structure or system is responsive to the community.”
Under the hybrid model, for instance, he said, students and staff could return on a staggered schedule. “For example, they could be differentiated by grades and/or by levels, or by areas of the city depending on the spaces,” he said.
Within all the scenarios, he said, “there will be multiple models … and we have to evaluate each of those and make sure we are considering the constraints on parents and families that have to return to work, employees and other stakeholder groups, and all of the associated risk, with the goal of providing the best educational experience to all of our students.”
He said that all plans would “recognize that, for a variety of reasons, there will be both students and staff members that have to continue working remotely because of pre-existing conditions or vulnerabilities.”
On the Policy Lab call, Hite also said the District must plan to address trauma related to the pandemic and school closures, but also to help students “process when they see reports of black people whose lives seem to have little or no value. I understand the fear that comes with that, and seeing neighborhoods that they know and love destroyed.”
Addressing the “pretty acute social and emotional trauma that has been a result of the events over the past several weeks and over the weekend … has to be at the forefront of our thinking about a return to some degree of normalcy. We are going to have to walk children through the social and emotional aspects of this, and then get to the structures and schedules and what these things look like.”
Some of the state’s yellow-phase guidelines are vague concerning basic questions of logistics, including one that calls for districts to have “protocols for adjusting transportation schedules and practices to create social distance between students.” In Philadelphia, about 60,000 students take SEPTA to school each day.
“As research and data continue to inform us, there will be more guidance to schools and communities,” said Rivera.
For higher education institutions, in-person reopening is approved for June 5 and beyond. Temple University has announced that it will have in-person classes in the fall.