School districts across the region are creating online lesson plans and sending students home with packets of assignments as they brace for the prospect of the spreading coronavirus causing extended school closures.

More than a dozen districts serving thousands of students said they would preemptively close in the coming days to give administrators and teachers time to plan how best to deliver instruction to students in the event that schools are shut down. Others have been asking families whether they lack internet access, or have been mapping out the number of state-required instructional days and how coronavirus closures would fit in.

In one Abington elementary school, students were sent home with a folder Wednesday with 10 days’ worth of work — labeled “Student Assignments for Just in Case.”

“I realize how scary this is for all of us," Washington Township Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf wrote in a letter to parents Wednesday, announcing early dismissals next week for teachers to be trained on the remote learning lesson plans. "We will continue to do what must be done to be prepared.”

The potential for closures is forcing districts to confront a variety of challenges without clear answers. Public schools provide free meals for poor students, and services for children with special needs. Many are grappling with how they would continue to fulfill those roles in the event they had to close for prolonged periods.

“We’re struggling with how we’re going to meet those needs,” said Wagner Marseille, superintendent of the Cheltenham School District, which closed this week for deep cleaning and planning for remote learning. The district hasn’t determined which families might lack internet access — “You can’t send an online survey asking if you have online access,” Marseille said — or how it might provide free meals, or special-education services required in students’ individualized education plans.

“We’re calling anyone and everyone to see what they’re doing and what their ideas are," Marseille said. The district has been in touch with families and houses of worship that want to help make sure students have access to meals, he said.

In Lower Merion, administrators announced middle and high schools would dismiss early Friday to allow teachers to work on remote lesson plans. Similarly, schools in Collingswood and Oaklyn in Camden County said they would send students home early Thursday and Friday.

In Delaware County, where many districts are canceling school either Friday or Monday for planning, Garnet Valley Superintendent Marc Bertrando said school leaders were trying to plan lessons for students that can be completed at home independently.

“We don’t want parents to have to sit all day home-schooling their children,” Bertrando said.

Garnet Valley, which already offers “eSchool” as an option, is “in a really fortunate position” as it plans for remote learning, Bertrando said. All students have access to iPads or other technology to take home in the event of closures, and lack of internet access is “not a huge issue” for the district, he said.

Others predict more complications. In Pottstown, where all students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch because of the share of low-income families, closures “become much more problematic than they would be in some other districts,” said John Armato, the district’s community relations director.

Besides lack of internet access among some families, and students needing meals, “we have a lot of families that are two-income earners," Armato said. With younger children suddenly home, he said, “that could be a challenging issue."

John Armato, Pottstown School District's director of community relations, stands alongside Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez as he addresses students at Pottstown Middle School last year.
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
John Armato, Pottstown School District's director of community relations, stands alongside Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez as he addresses students at Pottstown Middle School last year.

Surprise school breaks can really throw things off for families, said Caroline Watts, director of school and community engagement at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

“Schools are stuck in the position of having to make choices they know will disadvantage some of their families,” Watts said. “It highlights the need for structural change in our system, which is nobody’s short-term answer.”

Can administrators provide grab-and-go meals that families who aren’t quarantined pick up? Can they find a way to encourage families to support one another by pooling child-care resources?

“They’re going to have to be extremely creative in terms of how kids are going to be assessed in terms of making up work," said Watts. "We can’t penalize kids who don’t have resources.”

While Pennsylvania passed a law last year allowing school districts to develop a “flexible instructional day” program and meet the requirement for 180 days of learning, fewer than 80 of the state’s 500 school districts have been approved for the program, according to a state list.

A number of districts said they didn’t apply for the program because they didn’t think they could meet its requirements, including for providing online learning to special-needs students.

Rick Levis, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said: “The department recognizes that school districts have questions about offering classes online during a school closure and about providing meals to students if schools are closed. Additional guidance to school districts on these issues will be provided by early next week."

Schools can’t expect to simply set classes up with video chat software and have children listen to teachers lecture, said Ryan Baker, associate professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education and director of its Center for Learning Analytics.

There are, however, good resources online — particularly for math curricula — where students can be meaningfully engaged, Baker said. And for subjects that don’t lend themselves as easily to online programs?

“I would encourage them to think about project-based learning — where students are talking to each other on small groups. The teacher might be able to stay in touch with a program like Google Classroom,” Baker said.

Switching very young students — preschoolers, kindergartners — to wholesale online learning will be more difficult, Baker said.

If the West Chester Area School District had to close for two weeks — the incubation period for the coronavirus — the district would provide online and remote instruction on some days and treat others like snow days that would be made up at the end of the school year. Superintendent Jim Scanlon said students in upper grades have experience taking classes that are partly online, but the experience would be more challenging for younger students.

“We’re going to deliver materials for them — I don’t see that as instruction,” Scanlon said. He said the goal is to “still try to maintain some semblance of education going on. … It’s not like you can just flip the switch, and suddenly we’re doing online learning and it’s just as good as face to face in our schools."

Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.