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York County districts are embracing 'forward learning,' what lies ahead

Every day, Northeastern kindergarten teacher Ruthie Mohney conducted virtual lessons on Google Meet with her students for 30 minutes to an hour. They did a little bit of math, a little bit of word work, and she ended with reading aloud to give them a sense of normalcy.

"The main thing through all of this is just staying connected with our students and families," she said.

It's what her students had to adjust to when districts transitioned to new instruction at the end of March after schools closed because of COVID-19 — but it was just the beginning.

Starting July 1 — which marks the new fiscal year — schools will be permitted to reopen and welcome students in the fall or sooner, the Pennsylvania Department of Education announced Wednesday.

Education Department officials have said that when schools reopen in the fall, they might still look different. Some might even do a mix of remote and in-person learning.

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

York Suburban and Eastern York school districts have already taken the pandemic as an opportunity to improve their overall learning models, officials said.

Suburban dubbed its distance model as "forward learning," in anticipation that some of the teaching strategies, ways of collaborating and assessment methods employed remotely will continue for years to come.

The Eastern York administration is now looking to create the district's own cyber school with opportunities for blended learning.

"This is our chance to compete," said Eastern Superintendent Joseph Mancuso at a recent board meeting.

More:York County's 2020 high school graduation galleries

York County districts are now coming to the close of two-plus months of continuity of education plans — a term used for long-term learning outside of school — and much of it has been a trial-and-error approach.

The emphasis has been on flexibility, with many districts providing a combination of review and instruction — despite Education Secretary Pedro Rivera stressing that all districts should be providing new instruction going forward.

More:'Going with the flow': Hanover family turns to outdoors to educate autistic child

Northern York County, for example, did not see online-heavy instruction as developmentally appropriate for younger students, and York City did not provide new instruction to K-8 students until May 11.

Part of this could be because of the city district's need for more devices to provide equity of education for all students. Most districts that did not have one device per student offered shared devices, hot spots and free wifi in public locations.

Eastern York School District's new superintendent, Joe Mancuso, looks at a mapping assignment with Wrightsville Elementary fourth-graders Hunter Tuscan, left, and Dominick Griffin at the school Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. Bill Kalina photo

Districts' education plans varied, but typically there was about 90 minutes of work for elementary, three hours for middle school and up to four hours for high school students.

Central York and West Shore even cut back to four days a week to allow students to have a catch-up day.

Most lessons were asynchronous, meaning they were done independently, at any time of day, and South Western gave students 24 hours' notice before any synchronous, or live, lessons

"Teachers and students must be afforded leeway during this transition," Red Lion Area's plan reads, noting neither had previously worked in this environment and many had multiple roles at home.

Grading also was relaxed, with the majority of districts opting for a pass-fail model. However, Northern used a traditional grading scale for high school students, and Dover Area graded 50% of assignments for each of the past two quarters.

Sara Gray Bradley, and her children, from left, fourth-grader Allison Bradley, 9; fifth-grader Benjamin Bradley, 11, and kindergartener Jacob Gray, 5, attend virtual class at their East Manchester Township home Monday, April 27, 2020. Sara is trying to work from home for her job in the midst of helping the kids. Bill Kalina photo

"Our district's philosophy in all this is grace over grades," Mohney said. 

As districts look ahead to the fall, they are reviewing what worked and preparing contingency plans for whatever the pandemic has in store.

Distance learning will never replace what's provided in the classroom, Northern Superintendent Eric Esbach said in a letter back in April.

"However, it does allow us to continue providing education to all students, despite the challenges faced by families, staff members and students," he said.