York County districts press forward with 'daunting task' of remote learning

In the wake of a statewide extension of school closures, York County administrators who had formerly put all learning on hold are now shifting to an online teaching model.

They are urging families in daily updates online to be patient as they make the switch.

"It’s incredibly difficult to shift a school district in a matter of days to providing online education," said Eastern York Superintendent Joseph Mancuso, in an online letter.

Dover Area Superintendent Tracy Krum called it a "daunting task to implement for 250 professional staff and 3,600 students."

A state Senate bill — which Gov. Tom Wolf signed Friday — places a number of emergency provisions in place to help districts during the coronavirus pandemic.

SB 751 shifts some of the weight of teacher evaluation from standardized testing to classroom instruction, increases the number of flexible instruction days, bolsters protections for cleaning staff and requires pay of all school employees during closures, for example.

On Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf said schools would remain closed indefinitely. Wolf's announcement came a day after President Donald Trump said that his federal distancing guidelines would run through April 30. 

Nolan Matseur, 6, works on a number tracing worksheet under the watchful eye of his father Andrew as the Mount Wolf family have had to juggle homeschooling during the pandemic shutdown. Wednesday, March 25, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

More:Some York County school districts extend closures until April 14

Most districts will be offering remote learning beginning Monday — either with flexible instruction days, work sent home previously or new remote instruction.

What that looks like varies among York County's 16 public school districts.

For many, it will be a mix of online learning and packets sent home to students, depending on grade level and accessibility. Districts are conducting technology surveys to assess needs and special assistance to any students without internet connections.

Some are doing what they can to ease the transition — York Suburban will not have instruction for elementary students until April 1, and West Shore is beginning with 2½ hours per day.

Others, such as Northern York County and York City are electing to wait.

York City indicated it was "preparing for the possibility" of online learning and working on a plan. Northern is continuing with supplemental or review materials until it receives further guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education after April 6.

Shrewsbury Elementary School third-grader Christian Dozier, left, and her sister, Tanya, a fifth grader, work on Flexible Instruction assignments at their home in Shrewsbury Township Friday, March 13, 2020. Students in the district were provided with daily Flexible Instruction packets originally intended to minimize the impact of snow days. Southern York County School District canceled classes Friday after a community member was tested for the virus. Bill Kalina photo

West Shore will not be grading its work, noting it's not meant to replace daily classroom instruction.

"There are many unanswered questions, and we know this can cause uncertainty and concern for ALL," said York City Superintendent Andrea Berry in her update to parents, but reassured parents the district is working on a way forward. 

Schools originally closed for two weeks, under Gov. Tom Wolf's order, and were scheduled to reopen March 30.

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

There had been some confusion over what the state-mandated closures meant for instruction, with some districts holding off to either to save flexible instruction days or ensure equitable access to learning for all students. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has said all students must receive the same instruction, including those with special learning needs.

But Education Secretary Pedro Rivera clarified in a Wednesday conference call that this did not mean districts could not provide learning otherwise — they would merely require a "good faith effort." 

"We are strongly urging school districts to not wait, to not stand on the periphery," he said.

The state's Senate Education Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, Jr., R-Richland Township, said it's hard to ensure all students always have access in a one-size-fits-all approach and said  he would be open to divvying up those requirements in the future.

"I think we’re gonna have to look at that," he said when reached this month.

PDE is supporting the state's 29 intermediate units to create differentiated platforms to provide instruction.

"We are assuming that cost and that role through the process," Rivera said Wednesday.

Rivera said the department is in conversations with the general assembly on funding and stretching existing dollars so "the bulk of the costs" will not be transferred to districts, especially those low on resources.

A national survey of educators and school leaders conducted two weeks ago by Education Week showed a disparity among districts  — with 41% of school leaders saying they could not provide remote activities for every student even for one day.

More than half of districts where 51% of students or more were low income could not provide e-learning opportunities.

More:UPDATE: State cancels standardized tests amid pandemic closures

Standardized tests were canceled this year by PDE, meaning schools can focus more on instruction. By statute, the school year cannot extend past June 30.

"This provides much-needed relief for staff and families concerned their students would return to school only to face days of testing," said Hanover Public Superintendent John Scola, in an online letter.