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As of Friday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education was still planning to see schools reopen in the fall.

While decisions on reopening will depend on the health and safety of students, "at this time, there are no plans to keep schools closed in the 2020/21 school year," said department spokesman Eric Levis in a statement Friday.

The statement follows comments  Wednesday by state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera to ABC 27 News that offered a more cautious assessment about whether schools throughout Pennsylvania would reopen for the fall term.

“We’re going to track the data, and we’re going to hope for the best, but unless we can really work toward solving this pandemic and lessening the number of cases, there’s a chance that students may not return to school,” Rivera told the TV news station.

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The department is exploring a number of scenarios to adapt schools to a fast-evolving health crisis, Levis said.

Schools across the state first closed for two weeks, beginning March 16, then about two more weeks, then "indefinitely" — and are now closed through the end of the school year.

As the spread of COVID-19 evolves on a weekly — even daily — basis, state health department officials say the status of schools is still up in the air. 

"They are in a bit of a unique situation because you have gatherings of large groups of people at a school," said state health department spokesman Nate Wardle.

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While a school environment might not be the same as 5,000 people gathered in a stadium, "they’re constantly touching the same things and interacting throughout the day," and that spreads germs, Wardle said.

On Friday, the governor announced his phased reopening of the state, which is set to start May 8 in counties throughout northern Pennsylvania. 

Schools reopening is not within the criteria of entering the first phase — the yellow phase — but it's also not explicitly stated in the green phase.

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Whether schools reopen on time, or have to close again, might depend on restrictions for social distancing and large group gatherings issued by health officials, as the governor adheres to these guidelines. 

Wardle said extending social distancing past the summer will largely be based on the region, as restrictions will be lifted in areas of the state where the density and number of cases of COVID-19 are lowest.

The regions that are higher right now, such as the southcentral and the east, should see some relief in the summer months, and “hopefully that will sustain us moving forward," he said.

"We are looking to take all precautions to ensure that a second wave doesn’t occur," Wardle said.

But he added that  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said there could be second wave in fall or winter — though not necessarily a major one.

PDE is preparing for a range of scenarios when school reopens that account for adapting to the movement of an unpredictable virus.

"It may be a combination of in-person and remote instruction," Levis said in his statement. "Schools may start with in-person instruction but may have to switch to remote learning if the virus reemerges."

Or there could be a hybrid approach that involves staggering days in physical buildings so not all students are taught there at once, with remote learning for students when they are not in school, he said.

“The Department of Education is engaging with schools and partners around these questions as they prepare for the next school year,” Levis said.

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