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Officials weigh options to reopen schools safely

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Pennsylvania schools remain set to reopen in the fall. State officials met Tuesday to discuss strategies to safely reopen.


As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Pennsylvania schools remain set to reopen in the fall. State officials met Tuesday to discuss strategies to safely reopen.

The House Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing June 30 that included state representatives, education officials and data analysts.

“Everyone is eager to see schools reopen,” said State Rep. Mark Longietti (D-Mercer). “We know at the same time that health and safety is paramount.”

Mitigation effort options include mandatory masks on the bus, block scheduling and eating lunch in the classroom.

Data analysts from nonprofit Mathematica made a presentation comparing different strategies for schools to reopen. They included seven scenarios of school plans ranging from operating normally to teaching students in-person just one day a week.

The most effective way to reduce infections is to divide students into smaller groups that each attend school part-time, according to Mathematica’s simulations.

“It indeed appears to be likely to be effective enough that we do not see any compelling public health reason that school buildings need to remain entirely closed,” said Mathematica Senior Fellow Brian Gill.

Attending school part-time would likely involve a hybrid learning system of in-person and virtual learning.

However virtual learning, even part-time, could come at a cost. Not going to physical classes is associated with harms such as reduced socialization, less physical activity and more food insecurity. In addition, teachers have less opportunity to identify potential abuse, according to child advocate groups.

A brief published by NWEA Research predicts students who missed in-person classes in spring of 2020 will have already lost up to nearly half of last year’s learning gains by the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“We do anticipate, as other researchers have, that there are going to be learning gaps that are significant,” said Matthew Stem, the Pennsylvania Department of Educations’ deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education.

The Department of Education will allow each school district to decide which strategies work best for them.

Officials did warn that like coronavirus, plans may change.

“This is really on a day-by-day basis as to what the procedures could be or might be,” said State Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee.

House Republicans also expect schools to reopen in the fall. A spokesman for the Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) told FOX43 in an email,

“We expect schools to open in the fall and operate and educate at the standards parents and students have the right to expect. That expectation is reflected in the budget we passed late last month, which fully funds Pennsylvania’s schools, teachers, and administrators for 12 months. Taxpayers are making sacrifices this year, but the General Assembly and Governor Wolf ensured every student’s education remained a top priority. So, it is appropriate to expect schools to operate and educate effectively.”

Before reopening, every school must create and publish a COVID-19 safety plan that students and parents can access.