York County schools struggle to make sense of Wolf's shutdown order

Layla Montagne hands a lunch to her son Holden Niebrugge, 8, after visiting the lunch program at Dallastown High School Monday, March 16, 2020. Montagne took her son and neighborhood friends Gavin Milhimes, 9, left, and his brother Colton, 6, along for the lunch pick up. The children are students at York Township Elementary School. The school district is offering grab-n-go meals for all students weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Bill Kalina photo

There's widespread confusion among school district officials about whether teachers are allowed to provide any instruction, such as remote cyber learning, during the statewide shutdown caused by the coronavirus.

Gov. Tom Wolf's order Friday to shutter schools was one of several serious measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory illness sweeping the country.

"We all know that we are in unprecedented waters here, and it’s kind of scary right now, but the important thing is to remain calm," said Pennsylvania State Education Association spokeswoman Lauri Lebo.

PSEA is the union that represents teachers throughout the state. 

In statements posted to their websites, Red Lion Area School District, Northeastern School District, Southern York County School District and Central York School District indicated that their teachers would not be able to teach students remotely during the closure because the two-week shutdown is state mandated.

“That’s all on hold at this point until the two-week period is up,” said Duane Bull, South Western's secretary to the superintendent.

Bull said it’s his understanding that districts are not allowed to offer any instruction during the mandated closure.

West York Area School District officials had previously said that teachers could not communicate with students, but a clarification Monday said that since only essential personnel were required to work, student and teacher work is not required.

“We have not been told that students cannot complete the assigned work nor have we been told that teachers cannot respond to questions and provide feedback to students,” an online notice reads.

"Therefore, we are encouraging students to do the best they can with the work sent home," the post continues.

But the governor's and state Department of Education's guidelines for school districts state that if a district is able to provide online schooling for all students, including those in special education, then the district has the right to keep its classes going remotely.

It's up to school districts at the local level to decide whether to offer online classes, according to the guidelines from the state.

Dover Area and West Shore school districts indicated that equitable access was a factor in their decisions to suspend instruction for two weeks. 

"As a district, we are responsible for the equity of access to instruction for all students. This includes students without home access to the internet and appropriate programming for students with disabilities," reads a district notice of frequently asked questions.

An update from West Shore Superintendent Todd Stoltz on Monday said that after a morning meeting with area solicitors and superintendents, district officials determined they could not guarantee equal access in the shortened time frame. 

Some districts noted that after the two weeks, officials would reevaluate the use of flexible instruction days.

Calls to Wolf's office Monday seeking clarification about what schools can and cannot do were not returned. 

Dover and Spring Grove Area districts are still providing online learning materials as one option, but they're not a requirement for students. 

Schools will not be penalized if, as a result of the closure, they don't meet the minimum 180 days of instruction usually required to qualify for state funding.

“Right now, the schools are closed down, they’re stopped,” said Donald Carl, a West York board member and global studies teacher at Central York. “The only function being the bare minimum they need to keep the buildings going.”

Chartwell's Dining Service manager Susan Eckert hands lunches to Brandon Kramer, who has two children in Dallastown schools, during the school lunch program at Dallastown High School Monday, March 16, 2020. The school district is offering grab-n-go meals for students weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the Coronavirus emergency. Eckert is the cafeteria manager at Dallastown High School. Bill Kalina photo

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That means teaching or anything that doesn’t have to do with plant operations is on hold, he said.  

Last Friday, before the governor mandated school closures, Southern York had become the first district in the county to close — using a flexible instruction day for remote learning.

"I would say one of the pros is that the children can do it independently," said Tanya Dozier, a district parent who lives in Shrewsbury Township. "It keeps their brain active so they’re not just watching electronics."

But now with instruction canceled, some students won’t get that luxury.

Even cyber charters were included in the governor's list of public schools that would be closed during the shutdown. The governor's office did not respond as to why these schools were included.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said she believes there is some flexibility.

“Cyber charter schools, like other public schools, may choose to continue to offer educational services that do not involve in-person instruction only in accordance with federal law,” she said in an email Monday.

It’s unclear how many support staff members are reporting to work throughout York County’s public school districts, except at South Western, where part-time staff are not reporting to work but are still receiving paychecks, Bull said.

Teachers will continue to be paid throughout the closure, Lebo said, but some districts may require their teachers to make up the lost days at a later time.

Decisions about which support staff members will be reporting to work, and whether those who are not reporting to work will be compensated, vary from district to district, she said.

"Right now, everything is so fluid. Everything is rapidly changing," Lebo said. "People are working toward getting good, solid answers on these issues."

According to Wolf’s guidance, districts at the local level can decide which staff they deem essential to reporting to school during the break — with suggestions such as administration, food prep and distribution, information technology and operational staff for payroll or building duties.

Many districts are continuing to provide meals to students during the shutdown with a grab-and-go pickup option at district schools.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act — which passed the U.S. House on Saturday in a 363-40 vote — would establish a program to see employees paid who are taking unpaid leave due to the coronavirus outbreak, and expand unemployment benefits, among other provisions.

For most people living in an area without an active outbreak, the risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 is low, according to the World Health Organization. And most people who get the virus will experience mild symptoms, such as a fever and cough, and will fully recover in about two weeks, the WHO has said.

But in the elderly and in people with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes, COVID-19 can lead to serious illness with a longer recovery time of three to six weeks.

As of Monday afternoon, Pennsylvania had 76 cases of COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health.