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With little state input, school officials grapple with reopening plans

William Penn High School senior Kevin Cruz adjust his mask during a pre-graduation ceremony at the school's Princess Street entrance Thursday, May 28, 2020. He said his mother's friend made the mask for him. Seniors received their diploma covers accompanied by up to 4 family members during the in-person event. The school is holding an official virtual graduation ceremony June 4. Bill Kalina photo

State guidance says one thing, health experts say another, and the responsibility is falling on school districts to create their own plans to reopen in the age of the coronavirus.

Some district officials say their plans are fluid and subject to change, as government guidance is changed so often, while others say it's important to make definitive choices. 

"We need to make a decision and not just change it every week," said Central York school board member Vickie Guth. "We need to say this is our plan, this is what we intend to do unless we are mandated by the government not to do it."

Districts have been given carte blanche to come up with their own plans, as long as they have steps or procedures in place for measures such as social distancing, limiting group interactions, staggering seating and mask wearing.

But the Pennsylvania Department of Education has yet to lay out clear requirements.

However, the state Department of Health said all children and adults in schools must wear masks unless they are 6 feet apart, or have certain disabilities, according to an administrative order for universal mask-wearing Wednesday.

More:Confusion spreads over use of masks to slow virus

"The government is waffling so much because they don’t want to take responsibility," Guth said.

Meanwhile, districts face two options: Approve general plans that can be tuned to evolving state mandates or craft detailed ones in an effort to reassure parents about what's to come.

West York on Monday voted 5-4 against tabling its plan until July, and then voted 5-4 to pass the plan, which includes some specifics but leaves many questions unanswered. 

The main contention was that there were not enough details. The phrase “to the extent possible” used throughout the document was very vague, said board member Donald Carl.

Vickie Guth

Lack of clarity also came up at Central, and board members argued families needed something more concrete.

And each decision for safety will affect what districts spend.

Ernest Logan, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, said in a news release that everyone wants schools to open in person, but it's going to come at a steep price.

“This is not going to be easy,” said Logan, noting that estimates on the additional funding required ranged from at least $158 billion to $244 billion nationally.

More:York County school districts brace for $1 million or more budget hits

Central board member Michael Wagner said it's not on the state or federal governments to decide what's in district plans. As board members, they have been given that responsibility, he said.

"We are the government," he said. "We have taken an oath of office for the operation of the school district."

But whatever plans they make could get changed with the snap of a finger in Harrisburg, as they did when schools shut down, countered Central board member Joseph Gothie.

One of the biggest points of uncertainty in each plan has been masks, which the state sought to address with last week's order.

So far, the districts that have passed plans have varied on their usage. West York and Central have them optional for both students and staff — except in certain situations such as on the bus or where social distancing cannot be maintained.

Red Lion Area School District's version requires all staff to be masked but not all students. Older students should wear a mask or face shield when it's "appropriate," the plan notes.

More:Spring Grove school board member: COVID-19 pandemic 'a crock of sh--'

Questions on their use have highlighted inconsistencies within existing health guidelines, board members said.

For example, everyone must wear masks in businesses but not in schools. Sports teams must wear them before and after practice but not during. Day cares are back in session with no issues. 

State Secretary Rachel Levine told KDTA news radio on Thursday that young people should be wearing them in sports if they are within 6 feet of one another.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in early June her department is "working to update and rewrite our regulations to ensure that they protect the residents of today and tomorrow."

A Central task force noted no evidence to support child masking, citing the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which said children  are less likely to transmit the virus.

However, the hospital did say children should be masked in close-contact situations such as on buses and when social distancing cannot be maintained.

And according to Central, in that case, there could only be six to eight students in classes that would normally hold 24. Superintendent Michael Snell logistically speaking a normal reopening would just not feasible.

"If we are required to maintain 6 feet distancing, we’re done," he said.