State orders Pa. schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania schools will remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic that has sickened thousands and caused hundreds of deaths statewide, under an order signed Thursday by the state's education secretary.

The extended shutdown order affects more than 1.7 million students in public and private K-12 schools. It means children will spend the rest of the year learning remotely.

The order applies through the last day of the current academic year, a date that varies among districts because calendars are set by school boards.

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Gov. Tom Wolf made the decision after consulting with Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and Dr. Rachel Levine, the state health secretary, Wolf's spokeswoman said Thursday.

Annette Stevenson with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association welcomed the decision.

"I think it'll bring great relief to the schools and the school leaders, because what it'll do is allow them to formulate the long-term plan instead of having this interim plan in place," Stevenson said.

Rivera told The Associated Press that decisions about how to handle graduations, which are made by local school districts, will depend on the extent of social distancing and stay-at-home direction in place as the graduation season nears.

Some districts are making plans for virtual commencement exercises, Rivera said.

Schools might be able to provide summer programming that starts on the day after their academic years end, although re-opening buildings will depend on further action by the governor, Rivera said. 

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"Reopening will depend on the decision by the governor, based on the data and the research and the expectations set by the secretary of health," Rivera said.

His order also waived several other provisions of law and regulations, including one related to teacher evaluations.

Throughout York County, public school officials reacted to the news with a blend of disappointment at the loss of the spring session and relief that they now know what to expect. 

“While we have been anxiously awaiting additional information and guidance, this is not the news we were hoping to receive,” said Northeastern Superintendent Stacey Sidle in a message to students Thursday.

However, the move from Wolf’s prior “indefinite” school closure announcement to a concrete closure through the end of June could be a positive.

“The Governor’s directive provides us the ability to plan better knowing that we are physically closed for the remainder of the school year versus planning with the potential of coming back,” said Dover Area spokesman Brad Perkins, in an email.

Schools are continuing with plans for remote instruction, with some even doing more than what’s required by law.

Northeastern will be providing remote make-up days for instruction missed during the initial 2-week school closures, even though meeting 180-day requirements for instruction was waived.

“We realize distance learning experiences cannot replicate those of the day-to-day classroom, yet we are pleased with how this platform keeps our students engaged in meaningful learning,” said Dallastown Area Superintendent Joshua Doll, in a statement.

Wolf first closed schools on March 13, initially for two weeks, as the virus continued its march across Pennsylvania. The Democratic governor tacked on another week before closing schools indefinitely, part of a series of progressively tougher measures meant to contain the outbreak and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. 

Linus Matseur, 8, uses a loom to weave glass trivets as the Mount Wolf family has had to juggle homeschooling with work during the pandemic shutdown. Wednesday, March 25, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

A state law passed last month mandates that schools provide an education during the pandemic, either by teaching new material or reviewing material that was already taught.

Rivera said about half of the school districts have sent his department plans that describe how they are continuing to educate children during the shutdown.

Wolf also has closed nonessential businesses and ordered all Pennsylvania residents to stay home.

Pennsylvania has seen more than 16,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 310 deaths.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Dispatch reporter Lindsay VanAsdalan contributed to this story.