Whenever the coronavirus permits Pennsylvania students to return to class, whether it’s September or otherwise, things will look different, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera said Tuesday.
“We’re planning for the best, but we’re preparing for the worst,” he said.
That could mean masks, smaller class sizes, rethinking school transportation, new ways of delivering children breakfast and lunch, reduced crowds at sporting and arts events, and other things students, teachers, and parents have not seen in the past.
“We’re looking at a hybrid staggered model that addresses not only the academic needs of students but also their health needs as well, and I would encourage parents to think the same way,” Rivera said in a call with reporters.
“When we return back to school, it will not look like the schools we participated in just over a month ago,” the education secretary said.
Rivera spoke to reporters shortly after President Donald Trump suggested states consider reopening schools, but Gov. Tom Wolf has already ordered all Pennsylvania schools closed through the end of the academic year.
Summer school could also be affected by the pandemic, Rivera said. Under Wolf’s plan for reopening the commonwealth, schools will only be permitted to hold in-person classes when an area is considered in the green zone, with the least amount of restrictions.
While there is a chance that summer learning programs may be able to happen in person, Rivera said, it’s also possible that “students would not be able to congregate and teachers would not be able to show up to school” and other arrangements would have to be made.
COVID-19 will also change the way schools operate in the future, Rivera said; educators throughout the commonwealth can now be empowered to “flip” their classrooms — a technique that refers to students learning material online, then using class time to work through problems with teachers and peers.
“Families and schools and communities have to see this as a new opportunity to transform education,” Rivera said.
Whenever in-person instruction resumes, schools and districts will have to help students gain ground, he said.
“We know the implications of summer slide, and now when you multiply that by two or three in some cases, our fear is that — especially for our most vulnerable students — we’ll continue to see potential backslide instructionally and educationally,” Rivera said.
The pandemic did cancel state assessments for this academic year, but don’t expect to see them vanish permanently, officials said.
“As we head into next year, our hope is that schools are in a place where we return to standardized assessments … and can use them as an important metric in continuous improvement," said Matthew Stem, deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education.
School districts across the commonwealth will likely see financial fallout from the pandemic. Philadelphia, in particular, has already signaled that it will have a budget shortfall of $38 million for 2020-21 and a five-year gap of $1 billion and will lobby state officials heavily to help minimize impact to city classrooms.
Any aid from Pennsylvania would come through the General Assembly, but “we’ve been looking at a cost mitigation strategy for school districts during COVID-19, as opposed to just generating revenue, because we don’t have the method by which to generate revenue,” Rivera said. The department has provided some professional development and online platforms to districts.
The state has given equity grants to some districts with large numbers of students unable to participate fully in education during the pandemic because of technology or other gaps; Philadelphia, Bristol, Coatesville, Chester-Upland, Interboro, Norristown and Upper Darby are among the districts that received state dollars. Several area charter schools, including Antonia Pantoja, Olney Charter High School, Philadelphia Hebrew, and Universal Institute, also received funds.
Rivera said the department was able to award $5 million in equity grants, but it had $22 million in requests.
Rivera was clear, though: Any assistance that comes to school systems and charters in the form of pandemic relief must be treated as such.
“That’s one-time funding,” the secretary said. “We should not use that to supplant existing programs. If not, we’re going to find ourselves in a position where in a year or two we’re asking for more funding.”