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Officials: Pa. schools can reopen in-person teaching on July 1

MARK SCOLFORO
The Associated Press
Students receive their diplomas during a timed, socially distanced graduation ceremony at Dallastown Area High School, Monday, June 1, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

HARRISBURG — Elementary and secondary schools inside Pennsylvania’s less restrictive reopening zones can resume teaching in person and other activities at the end of June, the Education Department announced Wednesday.

The guidance issued by the department says school boards in the green and yellow zones under the stoplight-colored reopening system must first adopt health and safety procedures that meet federal and state guidelines.

The more than 300 colleges and other post-secondary institutions can restart Friday if they have a plan to keep students and teachers safe, the agency announced.

Penn State York will follow the guidance of Penn State University, whose president, Eric Barron, plans to announce recommendations for a second summer session and the fall on June 15, according to a news release.

Both Penn State and York College have task forces that have been working toward successful reopenings. The latter plans to do so in the fall.

"We are looking carefully at how students interact, especially in common places like the residence halls, dining halls, classrooms, and Schmidt Library," said York College President Pamela Gunter-Smith in a May 17 letter to students.

The college is considering masks, testing and temperature checks, frequent cleaning and sanitizing and other policies and behaviors that will aid in safety.

Summer courses have been moved online and campus events are canceled until the fall, spokesperson Mary Dolheimer said in an email.

The reopening details follow a spring in which buildings were closed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, sending students home for distance learning to complete the school year and, more recently, for virtual graduation ceremonies. Signs that the pandemic is easing have prompted officials to implement gradual reopening of many functions.

“We fully expect students to return to classrooms in some capacity,” said Education Secretary Pedro Rivera in a news release, describing the guidance as helping schools establish “a framework that best meets the unique needs of their students and communities.”

Rivera stressed during a virtual news conference that districts would have a lot of flexibility about the details of their own reopening plans, and that they are not required to have all students learning in person on the first day they reopen.

“One of the considerations in the plan is understanding not every family may want, or be able, to send their kids physically back to school,” Rivera said.

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Some districts have already begun to work up plans that could result in summer school classes, he said. Many districts are likely to implement school year calendars that are a departure from their traditional approach, Rivera said.

K-12 schools that want to start teaching students in person will have to develop plans that are tailored to each school’s particular conditions. Local health agencies must be consulted, and the plan must be submitted to the state Education Department.

Schools will have to identify a pandemic coordinator, ensure those at higher risk of infection are protected, monitor for symptoms, limit large gatherings, issue hygiene guidelines and address cleaning, face masks and social distancing. They may want to require regular temperature checks of students, Rivera said, and need to figure out how to respond to those who show fever.

"This is in line with exactly what we were planning for," said West York Area Superintendent Todd Davies, when reached Wednesday afternoon.

Davies said he appreciates the guidance on specific safety measures and plans to consult and work with families individually to ensure his district has a model they are comfortable with — whether that is in-person instruction or a hybrid.

"We’re going to be available for every single student in West York," he said, including those with a compromised immune system. "We don't want to lose anybody."

One particular challenge will be in finding a workable approach to school bus systems and other transportation methods, Rivera said, warning of “significant hardships.”

The new state requirements do not apply to private schools, although officials are encouraging them to follow suit.

Colleges, universities, trade schools and other post-secondary institutions in the yellow or green zones can restart in-person instruction. The Education Department said those institutions must adhere to social-distancing guidelines and the federal and state standards for testing, as well as to mitigate and contain the spread of infection.

The recommendations for colleges and similar institutions include a phased return to campus, as well as earlier start and finish dates for the academic year.

York Dispatch reporter Lindsay VanAsdalan contributed to this report.