Conemaugh Township Brown Bag Breakfast

Conemaugh Township 8th-grader Braden Boring grabs a brown bag breakfast to eat before the start of classes on first day of school, Wednesday, August 26, 2020.

HARRISBURG — About 30 percent of Pennsylvania schools are starting the academic year online due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, a spokesman for the Department of Education said Wednesday.

The state has given schools three options for restarting the school year: Full-time in-person instruction; a hybrid plan that is intended to limit the number of students at school at any particular time; and remote learning.

About 30 percent of schools have begun the year with in-person instruction, and about 40 percent of the state’s schools have rolled out a hybrid schedule, said Eric Levis, a PDE spokesman.

Many of the state’s largest school districts are among those that have opted to begin the year with remote-learning, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

“For the hybrid option, the logistics can be very challenging,” he said. If schools are looking to create schedules that have students attending with staggered schedules, busing can be a challenge because there may not be enough buses or enough drivers for additional routes, DiRocco said.

Faced with the number of challenges involved with trying to come up with a hybrid plan, school districts see opening with remote learning as a simpler alternative.

DiRocco added that some districts have been able to adopt so-called hybrid schedules wit relatively modest schedule changes. In those districts, enough families voluntarily enrolled their children in online classes that the districts could demonstrate their plan reduced the number of students at school, he said.

The issue of how schools reopen has become a controversy at both the state and federal levels.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged schools to resume in-person instruction and in the state House last week, the Education Committee approved a bill that would give families the opportunity to have their child repeat the school year if their district opts for remote classes instead of in-person instruction.

State guidelines have indicated that almost all districts in the state could open for in-person classes or with students attending in-person at least part-time through a hybrid schedule.

The state’s dashboard for giving schools guidance on whether to reopen focuses on the number of coronavirus cases over seven days and the number of COVID-19 tests that were positive in the last week in the county where the school is located.

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera on Wednesday said that while state officials believe that in-person instruction is best, they recognize that there are other factors that are influencing local school officials’ decisions to go with remote-learning, despite the state’s guidance. Rivera made the comments at a press conference dealing with the state's efforts to help parents adjust to having their children at-home because schools have scaled back in-person instruction.

Other issues that may be driving local officials to go online are concerns about the rate of transmission among students or staff or concern about whether school staff will be able to satisfactorily clean and sanitize the facilities to keep students, safe.

While the Department of Education and Department of Health have ordered schools to require masks and offered guidelines on social-distancing and cleaning in schools, he said. But the state’s left it up to local school officials to decide whether and how to reopen.

“The state is diverse,” Rivera said.

Some school districts may be moving to go online because parents in the community have little appetite for in-person school.

“We may look at the percentages and say they are relatively low percentages” of students that will get COVID-19. “As a parent, that percentage may look different.”

DiRocco said that while offering remote-learning may seem less complicated, schools are facing challenges in trying to get enough equipment to make that work.

With so many school districts seeking laptops and similar equipment, there have been shortages causing some districts to begin the year while still waiting for laptops they’d ordered months ago, he said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

Trending Video

Recommended for you