Pennsylvania leaders are preparing for schools to reopen this fall, the state’s education secretary said Monday.
“We fully expect to come back to school in the fall,” Pedro Rivera said during a virtual Senate Education Committee hearing. He said the Education Department would provide more information in the coming weeks on how it will prepare teachers and staff to return to school buildings that have been closed since March due to the coronavirus outbreak.
While Rivera said previously it was possible students would not return to in-person learning, he downplayed those comments Monday. The department’s intention is to reopen schools while keeping students and staff safe, he said.
“At worst, school’s going to look different,” he said.
Rivera’s comments came as some senators voiced concerns about the department’s plans for reopening. Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. of Bedford County, the Republican chair of the education committee, said the secretary’s previous comments about the prospect of students not returning to school in the fall had spurred “panic” and “confusion” among residents.
Rivera said the department was “working to open schools come fall." He said it would follow the recommendations of Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine, but would not necessarily mandate a particular approach to reopening, like staggered school schedules.
Instead, the department will “allow school districts to choose from multiple strategies” to meet continued social distancing guidelines, Rivera said.
He did not detail how schools might deal with logistical challenges. For instance, to a senator’s question about whether districts would receive additional state funding for more buses to accommodate social distancing, “that’s a conversation that’s going to come up,” Rivera said.
Rivera said the Education Department was looking at approaches other countries have taken to reopen schools, including Israel.
He said the department’s reopening plan would account for remediation students may need as a result of the closures. And after canceling standardized tests this spring, Rivera said, the department “will not mandate testing in the fall.”
More immediately, Rivera said, the department was “working on providing guidance” on summer camps and would follow Levine’s guidance for other summer activities.
All Pennsylvania school districts and charter schools have complied with the requirement to submit plans for how they are continuing to educate students during the school closures, Rivera said.
Asked whether his department was evaluating how well distance learning programs were working, Rivera said districts had been required to post their education plans online for the public. “Community members can hold their schools accountable,” he said.
Some senators said they had heard mixed responses from constituents on how remote learning was working. Rivera said the state was working with intermediate units but was open to lawmakers’ ideas for improving instruction.
“You’ve done a lot," said Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), “but we all recognize more needs to be done.”