Coronavirus and Schools: Reopening Guidance
The attached new reopening guidance states that in-person instruction can take place in the Yellow Phase starting July 1st. There is also encouragement to try it on a smaller scale to prepare for the fall. Within a few hours, we’ve had several parents contact us asking if we’re going to provide in person instruction. I’m asking the supervisors to work on a potential plan, but am contemplating holding in person ESY for the intensive programs (AS, LSS, MDS). Do you have any thoughts?
Sadly, in guiding school entities on the reopening of schools, PDE appears to have returned to the improvised, scattershot approach it used in ordering the closing of schools in the first place (and in rolling out its expectations for the then-unknown “continuity of education”). As was the case with its guidance in mid-March, the attached reopening guidance, issued today, is of questionable legality. Without legal authority, for example, the guidance requires schools to develop, obtain board approval for, post on their websites, and submit to PDE detailed “Health and Safety Plans” before they reopen. These plans are expected to include guidance on lowering classroom size to not more than 25, ensuring six-foot distancing, lowering density on busses, and minimizing student movement and cross-class grouping. The plans will also have to include an explanation of how the school will use virtual learning as needed both to accomplish these ends and as a contingency in the event that a resurgence of the virus, as is expected, results in the re-designation of some areas to “red” status. The problem, as we have indicated previously, is that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has just adopted legislation requiring a 180-day school term regardless of whether the governor uses his emergency powers to close or restrict the opening of schools, and the school code does not currently allow for the use of mandatory virtual learning or shortened school days as a means of satisfying the 180-day requirement.
To answer your question, however, we will set aside the legalities. We will also assume that you will be able to appoint a “pandemic coordinator” or a “pandemic committee” and develop, obtain board approval for, and post a “Health and Safety Plan” by July 1. We will further assume that you will be able to find the willing teachers and instructional aides, deep-cleansed classroom space, and bus drivers you will need (bus drivers are an area of anticipated shortage, given the hot market for drivers with CDLs in the pandemic-fueled, doorstep retail economy). Even with these considerable hurdles ignored, you will need to consider how to adhere to masking and social distancing requirements in implementing what you describe as your most “intensive” programs. We question whether many students with significant autism or ID will tolerate masks, be willing or able to practice social distancing, or be capable of learning with six feet separating them from PCAs, aides, and teachers. Instruction for many of these students will necessarily involve close, often one-on-one physical proximity if not hand-over-hand prompting. These problems, of course, will exist in the fall as well, but a shortened ESY program might not be the best, most supportive path for re-introducing live instruction to these children, especially as you will be building the program on the fly.
Nevertheless, PDE has set us up for failure with many of our families by offering the last-minute possibility that shuttered schools can re-open on a “trial” basis as early as July 1. Of course, news of this possibly will send—and already has sent—desperate parents flocking to school administrators seeking in-person education at the first opportunity on July 1. And as soon as one school yields to the overwhelming pressure, others will feel all the more impelled to follow suit. We believe that the better course is to remain virtual for the summer and to carefully begin the process of planning for a fall reopening while we await legislation that legalizes many of the creative approaches that reopening safely will require.