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When school reopens, learning will look a lot different

The Pennsylvania Department of Education continues to expect schools will reopen in the fall, with mitigation efforts in place.

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. —

The Pennsylvania Department of Education continues to expect schools will reopen for the 2020-2021 school year, according to Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera. When students return for the first time since schools shut down March 13, learning may look a lot different.

Administrators face a tough challenge of enacting virus mitigation efforts in the school environment, where students interact in many places: classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, auditoriums, and sports facilities.

Shippensburg Area School District is considering a variety of options.

“Cleaning, wearing face masks, taking temperatures, separating students, reducing the number of people who would congregate in any one place at any one time,” said Shippensburg Superintendent Chris Suppo.

The district has ordered thermometers in case they need to take students’ temperatures upon entering school, and is looking into bus routes that would put fewer kids on the bus at once. 

But every measure comes with drawbacks. Fevers aren’t a perfect indicator of contagiousness. Even if a student does have a fever, can they ride home on a bus with other students? Added bus trips take more time and cost more money.

RELATED: PA schools expected to reopen in the fall

Administrators worry enforcement will also be a concern if they decide to require masks or social distancing.

“We can’t always get them to stop chewing gum, so this is going to be a whole other challenge,” said Elanco Superintendent Robert Hollister.

In Elanco School District, average class sizes of up to 25 students per class may make social distancing impossible.

Given the logistical challenges to reducing contact between students, schools have to consider the concerns of parents who don’t want to send their kids back in.

“Schools may use a hybrid option that includes face-to-face with students as well as some online learning,” Suppo said.

The recession caused by the pandemic adds a financial burden for schools. As of February, Harrisburg School District had a balanced budget for the next school year. By May, they had a projected deficit of $4.2 million due to expected additional costs and lower income tax revenue.

“It’s the revenue reductions that have led to the deficit, and that’s why I’m calling it a COVID-19 deficit,” said Harrisburg Acting Superintendent Chris Celmer.

Mitigation efforts will cost schools more money, which many districts don’t have. Cuts may come in the form of layoffs or fewer courses.

“It means swapping one thing out for another,” Hollister said. “We’re going to have to choose safety over some other programs at some point, most likely.”

To help offset losses, Pennsylvania schools are receiving $523 million in emergency funding from the federal CARES Act, and $5,053,722 in emergency Continuity of Education and Equity Grants.