Pennsylvania school leaders to state: We need more help

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s existing reopening guidance for schools is too vague, and superintendents and school boards need more specifics from the state Department of Health about how to do it safely, a superintendents group said Monday following a call with Wolf administration officials.

The superintendents asked for more concrete recommendations from the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf as they make decisions on how, and whether, to welcome students back to the classroom this fall, including what to do if a teacher or student tests positive for the coronavirus.

“No tools have been given to school districts. Guidelines are best practices and suggestions and ideas. They are not specific recommendations,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Many school boards across the state plan to vote on their reopening plans in the next week or two, and public meetings held to discuss the details have shown the public to be deeply divided on how to proceed.

DiRocco said superintendents and school board members are being asked to make public health decisions for which they have no training or expertise.

“We’re going to do the best we can to keep our kids and our staff members safe, but if something happens down the line, we learn a month from now we should’ve been doing ‘X’ instead of ‘Y,’ we want it to be known that you put that decision in the hands of your local superintendent and your local school board members to make those calls, and they’re not public health experts,” said DiRocco, adding that local school leaders are worried about legal liability and are seeking protections.

DiRocco spoke after a call with state officials, including the health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, and the education secretary, Pedro Rivera.

Superintendents have expressed concern about how to respond to a sick student or staff member — whether to close down classrooms or entire schools — but Health Department officials reassured school leaders on Monday that they will help guide districts’ responses as virus cases arise.

But other questions remained.

For example, state guidelines call for 6 feet (1.8 meters) of separation among students and staff “to the maximum extent feasible,” but don’t explain what that means or whether there’s a minimum.

“Is it six, is it three, is it four, five? What’s the number? And the medical people need to be clear about that,” said Jim Scanlon, superintendent of West Chester Area School District in southeastern Pennsylvania, who also took part in Monday’s call. West Chester is among the state’s largest districts with about 12,000 students in 16 school buildings.

Levine told the superintendents they should strive for 6 feet, but noted that some schools may not be able to follow the recommendation, Health Department spokesperson Nate Wardle said.

Levine also addressed fall sports, the need for social distancing, and the role of case investigation and contact tracing, Wardle said. The superintendents also asked for a statewide metric for closing down schools, but state officials say they prefer to remain flexible.

With Pennsylvania schools set to reopen in a matter of weeks, the Wolf administration has largely shunned a one-size-fits-all approach in a sprawling state where the coronavirus has wreaked havoc in some heavily populated counties while barely touching others. Instead, the state’s 500 school districts have been given permission to restart in-person instruction with a plan that’s approved by the local school board, made public and provided to the state.

“We believe the guidance allows schools to make decisions that will assist them, as they plan around the specifics for their buildings and their school districts,” Wardle said.

School officials say the considerations are endless. Take transportation. The state guidelines recommend one child per seat or every other row. But with buses and drivers in limited supply, what about two kids per seat if they’re both wearing masks? Is that OK?

“Those are the kinds of operational, granular questions that need to be answered by someone other than a superintendent sitting down with a school board saying, ‘What do you think?’ DiRocco said.

DiRocco said his members will “rise to the occasion,” but worry they’ll make a decision that inadvertently jeopardizes the health of a student or staff member.

And he said districts only have about three more weeks to firm up their plans.

“The clock’s running out on us,” DiRocco said. “There just are a lot of unresolved questions out there that need to be answered before schools can open.”

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