As the number of coronavirus cases balloons around the country and across the region, schools are bracing for longer-term closures.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday that schools, initially shut through Friday, will remain closed at least through April 6 and possibly longer “if necessary to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19.”
“The number of positive cases increases daily, and we’re seeing it spread to more counties,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera said in the statement. “We must adhere to the social distancing guidelines. Extending the closure will help every community in its efforts to mitigate the spread.”
Rivera said he had directed the state’s 29 intermediate units to help districts prepare “continuity of learning plans,” including procedures for students with disabilities and English language learners.
Asked what impact the extended closure might have on graduation, Wolf said officials “haven’t decided yet.”
New Jersey schools are closed through next Tuesday at Gov. Phil Murphy’s order.
Elsewhere, officials have enacted or warned of extended shutdowns, including Kansas, where all school buildings have already been ordered closed for the rest of the school year, and California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom said he expected “few, if any” of the state’s schools would reopen before the summer break.
And Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday ordered schools closed through at least the end of the academic year, saying, “We are essentially fighting a biological war right now in this country.”
While Pennsylvania has not required schools to provide instruction during the current shutdown, a number of districts have been preparing to launch programs, expecting that the closures would continue.
“From an educator’s standpoint, I would wrestle with going any longer than these two weeks” without instruction, said Upper Dublin Superintendent Steve Yanni. The Montgomery County district is planning to announce a distance learning plan soon that would begin on March 30, focused on standards — “so we don’t have concerns about kids matriculating from one level to the next, and graduation.”
Many districts only have been providing optional lessons and assignments for students, as they await guidance for how to provide instruction without violating federal law that requires access for students with disabilities. Other concerns include English language learners and students without access to technology.
“That’s the big unknown question at this point,” said Christopher Marchese, superintendent of the Avon Grove School District in Chester County.
A number of districts, including Philadelphia, have made educational packets available for families to pick up.
Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Monday that the district was “making long-range plans,” and would release enough packets this week to get students through another 10 days of the school shutdown.
Hite said the district wants its teachers “communicating with their young people, with their classes. We want them to maintain those relationships.” Last week, the district had sent mixed messages about whether online instruction could continue, but officials now say it’s permitted, as long as it’s not graded or required.
Philadelphia is also eyeing possible longer closures, Hite said at a Monday news conference.
“We’re also beginning to explore ways to provide more technology for young people and broadband in the event that this goes even longer,” he said.
More districts are turning to online learning now that the closures are continuing.
The Centennial School District is preparing an online learning program, but there are “huge challenges. We don’t have enough machines, computer devices for all our kids,” said Superintendent David Baugh. “We’re trying to triage it.”
The Bucks County district is aiming to provide one device per family this week.
In addition, “there are kids that online learning is just not good for,” said Baugh, adding, “We’re hoping to be back soon, but we don’t see that happening.”
Pennsylvania on Thursday canceled standardized tests for the school year, and federal officials said Friday that they would waive standardized testing requirements. In Florida, where schools are shut down until April 15, state officials have canceled grades for students for the rest of the school year.
On Monday, Pennsylvania officials also canceled exams for students in career and technical programs.
New Jersey is requiring its districts to provide instruction during the closure, and some are already warning parents to expect to guide their children’s learning for a long haul.
“A stay-at-home lifestyle and remote instruction are likely to continue well beyond the original estimate of two weeks,” Haddonfield officials wrote in a Monday letter to parents, referencing Murphy’s stay-at-home order, saying, “We should plan to follow his directive until further notice and into the foreseeable future.”
Mary Gruccio, superintendent of the Vineland School District, said her district, where 62% of the school system’s 10,000-plus students live below the poverty line, is doing its best to match children with technology so every family has access to uninterrupted online learning.
“We’ve lent out as many Chromebooks as we could for our students who needed them at home,” said Gruccio.
Paper packets are available for those families who want them, including those with small children, Gruccio said, and teachers have gone out of their way to engage families in ways they haven’t had to in the past.
“Everybody’s been so supportive,” Gruccio said. “It’s just a very sad time.”