No matter how long the coronavirus-caused school shutdown lasts, Pennsylvania students will not attend school past June 30, the state’s education secretary said Wednesday.
“By statute, we can’t extend school past June 30,” Pedro Rivera said during a media conference call. “That’s actually when schools fiscally close, then we go into the next year’s fiscal cycle.”
Rivera reiterated a warning he gave when he ordered all Pennsylvania schools closed until at least April 6: The shutdown could last much longer.
“We possibly could be looking at extending the timeline under the direction of the governor and the secretary of health,” he said.
The Education Department issued updated guidance to school districts this week, “strongly encouraging” them to begin offering some form of instruction to students. Its earlier communication to districts said that if they could not offer instruction to all students, they could not offer it to any — a directive that left a number of districts unclear on how to proceed.
Rivera said the state’s intermediate units, countywide educational organizations, are offering guidance in distance learning and other types of remote instruction. But “by law, schools are not required to offer instruction during these extended closures,” Rivera said.
Advocates this week pushed state officials to require all districts to provide instruction to students, including children living in poverty, English language learners, and children with special needs.
Matthew Stern, the department’s deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, said the state has “taken the strong position that every district should be planning and moving into continuity of education. When it comes to access and equity, we are asking the districts to make reasonable and appropriate efforts in good faith.”
The state has already relaxed its 180-day school attendance requirement in the wake of the pandemic, and education officials are thinking through how high school seniors might be able to graduate if closures extend further.
Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., standing with Mayor Jim Kenney outside Webster Elementary in Kensington, said the move toward remote learning “doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a done year,” and that activities completed by students at home could still count toward final grades.
As the Philadelphia School District prepares to launch its remote learning program, Hite said he expects it will need to buy between 40,000 and 50,000 Chromebooks for students.
He said the district has to inventory the technology currently available in its schools to determine how much to purchase. The district plans to make a proposal to the school board on Thursday.
“We’re going to do the best we can with all the resources we can make available to all students,” Hite said outside the elementary school, one of 80 sites across the city where students can get free meals during the closures.
Hite said that the state’s guidance to school districts “hasn’t been as clear as it needs to be, in my opinion,” but that the district would make “the accommodations and modifications that can reasonably be made” for English language learners and students requiring special education.
Those groups “will be the first populations we have to focus on when we return to some degree of normalcy,” the superintendent said.