Philly area school districts are closing to prepare for more coronavirus-related closures

Titus Elementary School in Warrington, Pa. and four other schools in central Bucks County, were shut down Friday, March 6, 2020, as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Titus Elementary School in Warrington, Pa. and four other schools in central Bucks County, were shut down Friday, March 6, 2020, as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Starting Friday, all schools in Montgomery County will be closed.

There have already been a smattering of K-12 school closures in the region as communities deal with individual cases of the novel coronavirus.

But as COVID-19 spreads, districts are preparing for the possibility of extended closure — the kind that could wreak havoc on instruction, state testing and family scheduling.

Shutting down schools — as many countries have already done — requires considerable coordination. To pull it off, many school districts are holding impromptu teacher planning days in the coming week.

Districts, in short, are closing schools briefly to gear up for a scenario where schools are closed for a long time.

Delaware County school districts will hold an impromptu professional development day on either Friday or Monday so staff can prepare.

“Administratively, our team will be working on troubleshooting issues around ensuring that our families have access to technology, creating videos and tutorials for parents on how to assist their children with assignments, and several related topics as we plan and prepare,” said Garnet Valley School District Superintendent Marc Bertrando in a note to families.

Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County said initially it would dismiss students early on Thursday and Friday so teachers can work on “their remote-learning plans,” according to a note sent home Wednesday. The district has now decided to close schools for the full day on Friday after learning that a district parent was exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Districts, it seems, are starting to confront the potential for long-term closures and the coordination those closures will require.

“For a district of 13,000 students, it’s going to be a challenge,” said spokesperson Aardona Beauford of the Upper Darby School District in Delaware County.

Upper Darby’s plan involves allowing families to borrow laptops if the district closes schools, Beauford said.

But access to technology and the internet is a crucial hurdle for many districts, especially those that don’t have laptops for every student.

“Online instruction is not feasible at this time,” said Bernadette Reiley, superintendent of the Interboro School District in Delaware County. “Interboro is prepared to extend our school year to make up any missed days as required by the state.”

Other districts provide laptops to students in upper grades, but not students in elementary schools. That’s created a peculiar challenge: Could districts carry on with academic instruction at the high school level while significantly modifying school for younger children?

“Our high school has the capability to go to online classes if we needed to shut down for an extended period because all of our high school students have district laptops,” said Dan Nerelli, who heads the Chichester School District in Delaware County. “To continue learning at K-8, we are planning to provide online resources for students that they can use at home. For those that don’t have internet access or a device at home, we will provide materials that they can work on at home.”

Other administrators say the lack of technology for elementary-school students would make it effectively impossible for them to hold school — or at least a version of school comprehensive enough to count toward the 180 instructional days the state requires every year.

Michele Orner, head of the Octorara Area School District in Chester and Lancaster Counties, said that because the district can’t give every student a laptop or tablet to take home it creates an “equity issue.”

“We are not prepared here to move our entire educational program online,” Orner said.

Hardware isn’t the only obstacle.

Some administrators are worried about the lack of home internet access among some students in their districts.

“Doing an online model with [those students] would be impossible,” said Bill Harner, superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County. “Do you expect them to go to the local library? Well, that’s creating another congregation of students.”

The list of concerns goes on.

How would schools fulfill their legal obligations to special-education students who have specialized plans for instruction and care? What kind of accommodations do districts need to make for students who aren’t fluent English speakers? Could schools continue to make free breakfast and lunches available to students who rely on those meals in the event of a closure?

And what about union contracts? Can districts craft solutions that are within the labor agreements they’ve signed with staff and other personnel?

One expert from Johns Hopkins University says the logistical hurdles are so high, and the societal consequences so severe, that schools should simply remain open — especially since some evidence suggests children don’t contribute to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But there’s still widespread debate about how the virus spreads, and several districts in the region say they’re prepared to go fully virtual if public health officials recommend closure.

The Downingtown Area School District in Chester County dismissed students early on Wednesday so staff could finalize the district’s online plan.

Downingtown provides a technological device to students in all grades and says it will ensure that students can take their personal devices home if necessary. The district also says it has contingencies in place for students who need extra services.

“Our special education teams and counselors … worked together to create plans for our students who need additional support,” said spokesperson Jennifer Shealy. “We are even working on using one of our web-based programs to hold online counselor office hours to continue providing services to our students.”

Right now, there doesn’t appear to be anything resembling a uniform response among the region’s educators. Districts are taking divergent approaches based on their best judgment and their students’ access to technology.

One thing administrators do have in their favor is the weather.

Because of the mild winter, many districts have yet to use the handful of snow days built into their school calendars. Districts can tap into that cache of extra days before they run up against the state-mandated requirement of 180 instructional days.

But any closure lasting more than a week will cause potential problems, requiring districts to extend the school year or risk losing money from the state.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has already signaled that it’s willing to be flexible, although details at this point are scant.

In a letter published last week, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera told districts that if they are  “in jeopardy of not meeting the 180 days or 990/900-hours required,” PDE will put a form on its website for school districts to apply for waivers.

It’s unclear, as of now, what conditions districts would have to meet to earn those waivers.

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