Schools Prep for Possibility of Not Returning to Classrooms

Some Pennsylvania school districts on Tuesday announced plans to move forward with remote instruction, one day after the governor extended the school-building shutdown due to the coronavirus.

by Christine Vendel, The Patriot-News / March 25, 2020
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(TNS) — Some Pennsylvania school districts on Tuesday announced plans to move forward with remote instruction, one day after the governor extended the school-building shutdown due to the coronavirus.

Derry Township school officials announced the boldest action: They said they would start moving forward through their curriculum by “distance learning” starting on March 30.

That means teachers plan to pick up where they left off and finish course requirements for all students without students having to get back into the classroom.

“Many of the particulars are still being ironed out,” said district Spokesman Dan Tredinnick, “but we expect to have guidance out to families no later than Thursday.”

Harrisburg school officials, meanwhile, are starting a survey Wednesday: asking parents if they have access to technology to see if the district can restart classes online. District officials previously said they only had enough laptops to serve the high school population.

In Middletown, school officials are planning to hand out iPads to all elementary students next week. Older students already have school-issued devices at home. But the district said teachers will not be grading assignments, at least for the next two weeks.

The Philadelphia School District superintendent said Tuesday the district planned to buy thousands of devices to be able to offer more rigorous virtual instruction since half of students said they didn’t have access to technology at home, according to public news station WHYY.

Under Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest action, students could return to classrooms April 9, at the earliest, but many experts believe that may not happen because the coronavirus appears to still be spreading rapidly across the state.

Instead, school districts are bracing for another potential extension to the shutdown beyond April 9 that could stall students’ education beyond one month and possibly through the rest of the school year barring remote learning.

Many school districts had been hesitant to start online or remote classes that cover new academic material during a brief shutdown because of concerns about equity: Could a new style of instruction through computers or packets of handouts equally serve students who don’t have access to technology or for special-education students or English language learners?

Leaving some students behind could result in costly litigation, some superintendents said, because of federal requirements to provide equal education to all students.

Federal officials on Saturday tried to discourage those concerns from stalling overall efforts to restart curriculums across the country.

“Some educators… have been reluctant to provide any distance instruction because they believe that federal disability law presents insurmountable barriers to remote education. This is simply not true,” the U.S. Department of Education statement said. “We remind schools they should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities.”

The national department said it would be as flexible as possible with federal requirements.

“Many disability-related modifications and services may be effectively provided online. These may include, for instance, extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, and many speech or language services through video conferencing,” the statement said. “It is important to emphasize that federal disability law allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. The determination of how (federal requirements) are to be provided may need to be different in this time of unprecedented national emergency.”

Chris Lilienthal, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said additional state guidance published Tuesday indicates when schools restart instruction, they must determine if special education students have fallen behind during the shutdown and offer compensatory services to make up for any skills that may have been lost during the closure.

While the federal statement encouraged districts to get started with distance learning despite the challenges, it “really didn’t relieve school districts from any of the federal requirements,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the state’s superintendents’ association.

“It’s basically saying, don’t sit there and do nothing,” said DiRocco, who represents the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “But here’s the dilemma: whether districts try to move forward with instructional days (which carry federal requirements for special education,) or just continue with enrichment activities (which don’t carry requirements for special education,) there are probably going to be legal challenges no matter what they do.”

DiRocco said districts that do nothing likely will face the most legal jeopardy.

Districts may continue to do nothing until April 9 or tread water by offering review and enrichment material to students because that doesn’t kick in the requirements to restart special education.

Meanwhile, districts also must prepare for the possibility that buildings could reopen April 9.

“That’s the great unknown,” DiRocco said. “If I was still a superintendent, I’d have three plans: a short-term plan for now until April 9; a plan if kids come back to classrooms April 9 and a plan for if schools are closed several more weeks.”

If Wolf extends the shutdown beyond April 9, DiRocco said, that’s when districts will face the really tough decisions about how to finish the year out. That’s going to be a critical deadline.

Will some districts simply cut their losses and end ongoing instruction for the school year? The state education department already has said districts won’t be penalized for not providing the required 180-days of instruction this year that is required by state law.

Still, the department said schools are “strongly encouraged to plan possible adjustments to their calendars (e.g., use of snow days, Act 80 days, extension of school year, etc.) to provide as much instruction as possible during this unprecedented event.”

With three-fourths of the year completed, DiRocco said: “No one wants to give up on this school year.”

Districts that don’t finish their courses— and even districts that try new remote methods— will have to grapple with course credits and whether students are prepared for the next level of their education, which could be acutely problematic for older students.

“If you’re currently in biology, are you going to be ready for chemistry in the fall?” DiRocco said. “What about if you’re in Algebra 1? How prepared are you to jump into Algebra 2?”

School districts that can’t finish coursework this school year may have to start next school year with the material that was lost this year. If districts don’t move up the usual start date for school, that could mean trying to shoehorn about 230 days of instruction into 180 days next year.

“One district was talking about bringing kids back earlier in August, to try to do two to three weeks of instruction to finish out the last school year,” DiRocco said. “Then after Labor Day, they would start the new school year. Those are the kind of things we may need to look at if we lose an entire marking period.”

But those kind of ideas present logistical and labor issues, he said.

“Until we know something more definitive,” DiRocco said. “We don’t know what scenarios we’re going to finally end up with.”

©2020 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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