IU-8 Director

Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 Dirctor Thomas Butler is shown Friday, March 18, 2016.

Schools around the state are being asked to rely on local intermediate units to continue education during the coronavirus-driven closure.

"Our IUs have been representing school districts all throughout the year and provide specialized services to those school districts on a day-to-day basis," Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said Wednesday. "We felt that they were the leaders that were in place to provide the best opportunities and resources, and to collect the best information to ensure continuity of education."

In some cases, IU help takes the form of technical assistance or support. In other cases, an IU may provide learning modules to assist with online learning.

At Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, Executive Director Thomas Butler said training sessions for superintendents, special education directors and curriculum coordinators have taken place, with and a six-part webinar to address online techniques for teachers.

Resources for individual continuity plans were provided through the website www.myextendedcampus.com/coesolutions and ongoing technical assistance.

"The school districts are working so hard in so many areas since the governor has announced the school closures that IU-8 is happy to assist them in any way possible in creating their continuity of education plans," Butler said.

'Planning now'

Westmont Hilltop School District's strategy is expected to be rolled out next week.

"We're going through the planning now," Superintendent Thomas Mitchell said.

Mitchell described the IU as the "conduit to the state" and said the entire experience during this time has been positive.

"They're great about getting information to different school districts and helping to get a plan off the ground," Mitchell said.

A concern of many districts with implementing alternative education plans is web access and device availability for students.

Westmont is asking parents to contact the district if a device is needed and is planning to set up two pickup times next week.

Mitchell said the schools will provide iPads for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The district has tablets for students in ninth through 12th grade already.

Future uncertain

Rivera said the state education department is working with the U.S. Department of Education and the state government to "bridge that digital divide" and will provide guidance to districts that face these challenges.

For now schools are not required to provide any continued learning while closed.

However, Rivera said PDE is encouraging districts to continue to provide some form of learning environment.

"As we have been looking at providing that continuity of education we've taken a position that we are strongly urging school districts to not wait and to not stand on the periphery – to really engage students and provide educational opportunities that could be provided today," Rivera said. "And we'll continue to support students in the event of prolonged school closures."

In the districts choosing to offer continued education, there's a been a concern about the requirement of the department to provide equal opportunities to students with disabilities that align with individualized education programs or Section 504 plan.

That requirement will remain in place, but the department will be more understanding about schools' efforts and is asking districts to attempt to make equal offerings.

According to Matthew Stem, Deputy Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education for PDE, the department will work on a "good faith" basis for school districts moving forward.

"I think everyone recognizes that it's not going to be an easy task," Stem said. "What the department is strongly encouraging districts to do is everything that they can with their availability of resources that's reasonable and appropriate."

He directed districts and parents to the department-funded Pennsylvania Technical Training and Assistance Network, www.pattan.net, which provides a resources designed for students with special needs.

Monday Gov. Tom Wolf announced an extension to the statewide school closure. Now, students will be returning at the earliest April 9, Rivera said, but that date would change if another extension is implemented.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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