Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday ordered Pennsylvania schools to stay closed for the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus outbreak — setting a clearer timeline for school leaders but signaling to students, teachers, and parents that the pandemic will prevent normalcy from returning for the foreseeable future.
“We must continue our efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus during this national crisis,” Wolf said. “This was not an easy decision, but closing schools until the end of the academic year is in the best interest of our students, school employees, and families.”
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The school closure order applies to all public, charter, private and parochial schools, career and technical centers and intermediate units, as well as early learning program classrooms, including Head Start and Pre-K Counts. With current closures already stretching into April, “there’s no way schools would be able to prepare” to reopen this year, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said.
The announcement comes as coronavirus cases and deaths in Pennsylvania keep growing, and as the virus has prompted states from Oregon to Virginia to shutter schools for the year.
Prior to Thursday, 17 states had taken or recommended such a step. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, believes every other state will follow in the next few weeks.
“The talk is going on: Never mind about this school year. Will we be able to come back in the fall?" Domench said. "The reality is beginning to dawn on people that this pandemic is not going away.”
He also said online instruction is not a substitute for in-person teaching, and predicted “a loss in learning between now and the end of the school year.”
For school leaders, the order wasn’t unexpected. “Candidly, I’m kind of glad the governor pulled the trigger," said David Baugh, superintendent of the Centennial School District in Bucks County. “Now we can plan."
But the news stung some parents, who had braced for a long shutdown but held out hope schools would reopen.
“It’s going to be five months at home,” said Brooke Forry of Media, the mother of 7- and 4-year-olds. “That’s unfathomable.”
Explaining to her first grader why he couldn’t go back to see his friends and teachers this year was tough, said Forry, a self-employed graphic designer.
The governor on March 13 had ordered schools closed for two weeks, then extended the shutdown indefinitely.
Philadelphia is just now distributing Chromebooks to students, who will begin reviewing work with teachers next week and start learning new material on May 4.
While the state has not mandated that school districts continue to instruct the 1.7 million public school students, “parents should absolutely expect” them to do so, Rivera said. Districts have been required to produce plans for continuing education remotely; so far, Rivera said, about 300 of the state’s 500 districts have done so.
Though instruction has begun virtually in many districts — and schools have continued to provide meals and other resources to students — Thursday’s order reinforced the upheaval the virus has inflicted.
“I knew it was coming, but it still hurts to hear it for real,” said Greg Kauriga, a music teacher at Loesche Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia. “It was a gut punch.”
When school closed, teachers and students were in the midst of preparing for a production of Frozen Jr. “We were starting to hit our stride, and now all that work is down the tubes,” said Kauriga.
Andrea Rees, a parent of 14- and 12-year-olds, a school board member in the Methacton district, and a teacher in the Spring-Ford Area District, teared up while thinking about what the closure means for her children and students.
“School is such a big part of most of our lives,” Rees said. “Learning will continue, but it’s not the same when it’s not in a classroom.”
The state is letting districts decide how to grade students, but is not recommending that students, including graduating seniors, be held back due to the disrupted school year. Rivera said school leaders are determining how to show students have demonstrated mastery of subjects.
In Philadelphia, assignments will be graded starting in May. Students "will have the opportunity to improve grades, to stay on track for graduation or promotion,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday. But “it will not be 100% based on what we would have been able to do if students had not lost all of the days” from school.
Some teachers are worried that students will fall behind outside of classrooms. Colleen Citrino, a special-education teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia, wonders whether all of her students got a Chromebook — and whether they have internet access.
"These are the kids who need us the most,” Citrino said.
Hite acknowledged that certain students will be affected more than others — including students with special needs and English language learners. The district will have to create a “more robust extended school year program for those populations," he said.
The closures felt like a particular loss to high-school seniors and their parents, including Amanda Johns, whose daughter is a senior in the Pennridge School District.
“She’s going out of this without any sort of closure from her senior year,” said Johns.
Rivera said districts will have to abide by social distancing requirements for any graduation ceremonies.
Baugh, the Centennial superintendent, said his district is considering alternatives, including a parade or drive-through event.
Hite said Philadelphia will plan an event “to recognize the Class of 2020,” though the details are uncertain. He has directed high school principals to make sure students’ current addresses are on file, so diplomas can be mailed to those who earn them.
Tamiah Francis, a South Philadelphia High School senior, was crushed by the news that the final months of her school career were swept away.
“Twelve years of school, and no real graduation, no prom: it’s very disappointing,” said Francis, 18. “We all went through so much and persevered, and we just wanted our parents to see us get our diplomas.”
Beyond the current year, Hite warned that the district’s finances will be hard hit. In addition to property tax revenues, Philadelphia schools benefit from the city’s liquor tax, for instance, and with restaurants closed, they’re losing $2 million monthly, Hite said.
"It’s going to be substantial,” Hite said of the expected losses. .”
Rivera said the department has not provided guidance to districts yet on preparing budgets for the next school year.
He noted that while schools must remain closed, they could offer summer programs if the state’s social distancing order is lifted by then.
But with the online programs districts are putting in place, Rivera said, school may never be the same.
“This is going to change the educational landscape in Pennsylvania,” he said, "for generations to come.”