Having already blown apart one school year, the coronavirus has become an increasing threat to reopening classrooms in September, and officials acknowledged Friday that about the only thing certain is that normality will not be going back to school in September.
“We are trapped between some really hard choices,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday at a news briefing in Lancaster. “Opening in each school district is going to depend pretty much on the confidence of the parents, the teachers.”
Less than six weeks before school is scheduled to start, Philadelphia, home to one of the nation’s largest school districts, isn’t sure what it’s going to do.
Said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, “We understand that this school year will be unlike any that educators, families or students have experienced before.”
Their comments came on a day when Pennsylvania reported 1,213 new cases, the highest number in its daily reports since May 10. Philadelphia’s seven-day average increased to 139 per day, the Health Department reported, up from 110 last week.
Furthermore, infections among younger people have jumped significantly in the region. The 19-24 age group has constituted 18% of all new cases this month in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the state reported Friday, compared with 5% last month. In Camden County, those under 30 made up better than half the 32 cases added Friday.
In Philadelphia, leaders of the sanitation workers’ union have said that 100 members have contracted the virus, and on Friday Deputy Streets Commissioner Keith Warrencam said that illnesses have contributed to the prodigious trash pickup backlog.
“The tonnage we’re dealing with is astronomical,” he said. One Philadelphia city councilmember described the trash situation as a “looming public health crisis.”
The coronavirus is confronting the School District with a crisis of a different order. The school board was to vote on a plan Thursday that called for students attending classes two days a week — a plan Wolf ripped. But after listening to six hours of reservations from parents, principals, and teachers at a meeting that spilled into Friday morning, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. withdrew the plan for more work.
Meanwhile, the Downingtown Area School District, one of the larger districts in the state, announced that it would go all virtual until Nov. 5.
And at Temple University, faculty union leaders on Friday said their members should be not be required to lead classes in person this coming fall.
“We do not see evidence that Temple’s plans to return to campus will result in the safe working conditions demanded by experts and supported by the union’s membership and leaders,” they said on the union website. “While not ideal in safer times, the spring semester has shown that during a crisis we can fulfill the essential function of our jobs online.”
The move comes as several colleges and universities, including West Chester, Dickinson, the University of the Arts, and the University of Delaware, have announced they will reverse plans and conduct all or most classes remotely this fall.
In New Jersey, Stockton University said Friday it will use up to 400 rooms at the Showboat Atlantic City Hotel to house students during the fall semester to reduce the numbers living on campus.
The university, in Galloway, Atlantic County, said the additional housing allows it to fulfill its coronavirus safety guidelines, a move universities across the country are considering to speed up the return to campuses.
With case numbers flattening in the Garden State, Gov. Murphy released guidelines itemizing an “anticipated minimum standard” that districts must meet with online instruction.
All students are eligible for full-time remote learning, including special-education students. Districts must establish their own procedures, said interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer, as well as procedures for transitioning remote students back to in-person classes.
The guidelines require school districts to communicate frequently and clearly about procedures, and adhere to policies on attendance, length of the school day, and curriculum.
Murphy said that making the school year work “will require flexibility, foresight, and planning for school districts to be responsive to the needs of their families and their communities.”
Murphy added that allowing parents to choose the all-remote option would make social distancing easier. He also said the state will be able to supply internet access and devices to every student.
His Pennsylvania counterpart said he empathized with the anxieties of parents, teachers, administrators, and students who are concerned about what the return to classrooms might bring.
Wolf said he, too, struggles with balancing the need for good education and the importance of public health.
“At this point, my message is you have every right to be concerned,” he said. “I’m doing everything to make this situation for you and your children as safe as possible.”
“I have children too. Now, I have grandchildren,” he added. “And I care very much about their safety. I think every parent does. But we also want our kids to get an education.”
He said that for now, a mix of virtual and in-class instruction would make sense. He added that if case numbers go back down in the weeks ahead, school could revisit reopening possibilities.
“We need to make people feel confident in going back to school,” he said, “or they’re not going to go back.”