Newsroom Article

Coronavirus and Schools: Graduation - The Guidance that Wasn’t and Some Suggestions


Posted on in Press Releases and Announcements

For reasons that had many of us scratching our heads, the governor of Pennsylvania has been promising guidance for the past two weeks concerning graduation requirements for the senior class of 2020. 

The promise led many to believe that there was guidance to give—that whether students could graduate this year and under what conditions was in the air until PDE handed down the word. The guidance has come, and it boils down to this: “There are no statewide directed graduation requirements related to state assessments for the graduating classes of 2020 or 2021.” The department apparently needed to remind itself that the commonwealth got out of the graduation standards business with Act 6 of 2017 and decided, in Act 158 of 2018, not to get back into that business until 2022. Thus, the attached guidance document simply punts to each educational entity the task of deciding graduation requirements for 2020 based on the following broad principles:

  1. Schools should use a combination of waiving local requirements for graduation and, if necessary, using elements of their “continuity of education” plans to ensure that 2020 seniors can graduate in 2020; and
  2. Graduation for students with disabilities who were not going to graduate with a fully standards-aligned diploma will continue to be determined by the IEP team.

Most districts have established graduation standards that will require waiver for 2020. For example, some require proficiency on all or some combination of the Keystones; others require a certain number of credits; and others still require completion of a “project.” Although the decision is necessarily in the hands of each school board or other school governing body, we recommend that graduation not hinge on instruction and other activities that schools are currently undertaking virtually, unless such instruction or activities are needed to offer a pathway to graduation to students whose pre-closure performance, if unchanged, would have prevented them from graduating. Schools should deem seniors as having earned sufficient “credit” to graduate based on successfully completed coursework as of March 13. For those seniors who had failed or were failing course as of that date, schools should offer seniors opportunities through “continuity of education” to recover credit or demonstrate proficiency with pre-March 13 content such that they can graduate. 

We recommend this approach for two reasons. First, virtual learning is a novel experience both for teachers and students, and it will be difficult enough to ensure success without also freighting it with the consequence of not graduating. Second, if graduation for all seniors hinges on successful completion of virtual learning or some other form of less structured at-home activity, the result will be to amplify the inequities already built in to virtual learning:  problems of connectivity, lack of technology, and lack of home support. Using “continuity of education” to help failing students recover credit or demonstrate proficiency also presents these problems, but on a much smaller scale.

Effectively stopping the creditable senior year at March 13 and using “continuity of education” only to assist seniors to overcome pre-March 13 deficiencies also has the advantage of accommodating the full range of “continuity of education” options. Some of you chose to offer mandatory new instruction as an element of your “continuity”  plans;  others chose more optional enrichment and review activities. In either form, “continuity of instruction” can be used as a vehicle to assist struggling seniors to graduation without compromising the overall design of your “continuity” plan. Note, however, that for your seniors with disabilities who were not on track to graduate prior to March 13, IEP teams might have to revisit the student-specific pathway to graduation and specially design alternatives even in those districts that have opted for the “enrichment” only form of “continuity of education.”

We have attached hereto a model resolution for consideration by school boards as they contemplate waiving graduation requirements for the 2020 senior cohort. Please note that this is only a model. As PDE is fond of stating in its “guidance,” how each district chooses to address this issue is a “local decision.” We do recommend the use of a resolution or motion to accomplish the waiver of 2020 graduation requirements, rather than a policy. The waiver clarifies that this action is only applicable to this year, and that the graduation requirements remain in effect after 2020. The adoption of policies, moreover, can be too cumbersome for the current circumstances—often requiring multiple readings prior to final action (unless those requirements are also waived).