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Reopening is tricky for York County schools

York County districts are beginning to formulate their reopening plans, and as it was for remote learning, there's an emphasis on flexibility.

West York Area Superintendent Todd Davies said that though the fall of 2020-21 would not look the same as a normal year — and might even include a hybrid of distance and in-person instruction — he's committed to finding whatever works best for everyone.

"We’re going to work with families to make that option best for students," he said. "It’s the families that are going to have to help us make those decisions."

Todd Davies was approved unanimously by the West York school board in a special meeting Monday night.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education on June 3 announced schools would be permitted to reopen beginning July 1, provided districts post a health and safety plan online, approved by their boards.

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

These should include, for example, in counties in the governor's green phase — for which York County was cleared to enter  June 12:

  • guidelines for hygiene practices and the use of face coverings
  • protocols that allow for 6 feet of separation among students and staff when appropriate;
  • methods to limit classroom numbers, interaction between groups and sharing of materials

“It can often be a very big issue when you’re talking about school cafeterias,” said Chris Lillienthal, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

There would be hundreds of students in the same place, making social distancing very difficult, he said.

PDE released a template for districts to create plans June 5, and within the department's guidelines is room for flexibility. 

Since there are some multi-county districts that could be in varying stages of reopening and districts that diverge widely in size and characteristics, it doesn't makes sense to recommend a one-size-fits-all model, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said in a media call recently.

One thing's for sure, it's not going to be a traditional reopening, said York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams, adding there would definitely be health and safety modifications, and possibly other changes.

The York Suburban school board named Timothy Williams as the new superintendent at a meeting Monday, April 23, 2018.

It's too early for administrators at York County's 16 public school districts to have plans finalized, but they do already have some considerations in mind.

"What does a locker look like? Are students taking home any books? How are pencils being sharpened?" Davies said.

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

Williams said busing is going to be a challenge, as even with the safest in-school conditions, getting there could be a risk.

The fact that bus windows can remain open in warm weather at the start of the year and provide good air flow might help considerably, said South Western Superintendent Jay Burkhart.

"I’m very happy and excited that PDE put them out as early as they did," he said of the guidelines, noting that they will enable districts to start planning. 

District officials are also talking to counterparts within their intermediate unit and surveying families to find out what works best.

"We really don’t have best practices to go on since we’ve never been through this before," Williams said.

York City officials said they're committed to collaborating with Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12 to ensure consistency in its reopening strategy. 

A task force of state education associations also plans this month to release a concrete list of needed equipment and safety measures.

Dr. Jay Burkhart will be South Western School District's new superintendent starting in August.

Those could include masks, air quality measurement and filtration, special precautions for meal prep and serving procedures and considerations for school assemblies.

Davies said he is hoping to collaborate with other districts to buy in bulk, and Rivera said he's looking into state procurement systems to bring down costs.

The state’s school safety funding was expanded in this year's state budget for a total of $215 million for school health and safety grants, funded largely by the state's $2.6 billion federal CARES Act allocation.

In addition to safety concerns, there are other considerations for reopening smoothly.

PSEA said schools need enough teachers to collaborate and ensure class sizes are not ballooning too high, as well as nurses and counselors to support mental health – especially after weeks of isolation and a toll from the pandemic

“Maybe they have a family member who has been hospitalized,” or experienced other trauma from the pandemic, Lillienthal said of students and staff. 

More:Coping with mental health in a pandemic

More funding is still needed to offset the great loss to local revenues that would see some jobs cut to save on expenses, he said.

He added that PSEA is advocating for state legislation that passed the House and is before the Senate that would see an additional $175 billion investment in schools and higher education.

"I do believe we can get this figured out," Burkhart said, adding that it might take several iterations but everyone has the same goal — to get students back in school.