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CLOSER LOOK: York County school districts' focus shifts to virtual learning amid shutdown uncertainty

This April 9, 2020, photo released by Kara Illig shows her daughter, Ainslie Illig, 8, on her computer in Ebensburg, Pa. The frustration of parents is mounting as more families across the U.S. enter their second or even third week of total distance learning, and some say it will be their last. (Kara Illig via AP)

With uncertainty in state guidance and rising cases of COVID-19, most York County school districts previously considering a full reopening are switching their focus to online options.

While some cite remote learning as a safe option, others note its inflexibility for some parents and fear it would put children further behind.

"We need our kids to get an education, we can't interrupt it," state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said during a Friday news conference.

But when forced to choose between in-person and online education,Gov. Tom Wolf added, "It's two bad choices."

On July 16, West Shore became the first district in the county to consider starting fully online and transitioning to in-person learning later.

More:West Shore schools to reopen wholly online, transition later

After mixing potting soil, Ali Collier-DeChristopher and her son Enzo, 6, use a soil blocker while planting beans at the family's Brabble Hill Farm in Codorus Township Monday, July 27, 2020. A kindergartner at Friendship Elementary School last year, Ali said Enzo will attend first grade via the Southern York County School District's Digital Academy curriculum. Bill Kalina photo

But most other districts also are forming plans with one or two online options to assuage parents' fears and ensure they have contingencies in place should York County move back to the red phase, which would shutter schools as it did in March.

These York County districts have already approved reopening plans:

  • Central: in person with online options
  • Dallastown Area: in person with online options
  • Dover Area: in person with hybrid and online options
  • Eastern York: in person with online options
  • Hanover Public: in person for K-4; hybrid for others; online options
  • Red Lion Area: in person with online options
  • Northeastern: in person with online option
  • South Eastern: in person with hybrid and online options
  • Spring Grove Area: in person with online options
  • South Western: hybrid with online options
  • York City: in person with online option; hybrid for yellow phase
  • York Suburban: hybrid with online options

These York County districts have plans up for approval:

  • Northern York County: full reopening for K-6; hybrid for others; online options; vote expected Tuesday
  • Southern York County: hybrid with online options
  • West York Area: hybrid with online options; vote expected Tuesday

District officials expect state guidance to turn on a dime, as evidenced best by York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams' address to his school board Monday.

"As you’ll see from this report, it actually changes by the minute," he said.

His district had been leaning toward a full reopening at 2:42 p.m. on July 16 — but at 2:44 p.m. the state's clarifications on social distancing pushed officials toward a hybrid model.

More:State education secretary backs 'hybrid' reopening plan

Southern York County School District officials, who are considering a hybrid model along with two online options, said trends are already pointing toward an all-virtual model again.

"Our hope was to be able to give them at least two days where teachers can make connections with them, they can make connections with their peers," said Superintendent Sandra Lemmon on Monday.

The support in-person instruction offers for social, emotional and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children is not lost on administrators.

The Zen Den is just one feature offered by the Friends of Rachel Club at Northeastern Middle School in Manchester, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Students might use the space when feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday also threw its support behind reopening schools in person for these reasons.

Districts opting for hybrid models would see students in an A/B schedule with half of students in school on some days and the other days done virtually.

But board members are not convinced this is the best compromise, especially for elementary students, who stand to lose the most from falling behind. Some board members would rather start the year online and ease into a full reopening later in the year instead of being forced into a hybrid option for the full year. 

“We do not accomplish our mission of educating students properly in any format except five days a week,” said York Suburban board member Mike Thoman.

Administrators are torn, and acknowledge none of the choices are ideal, but some see no other option, as rooms, for example, are too small for social distancing without hiring more staff.

“We simply can’t do it in a traditional setting,” Southern's Lemmon said.

To make the transition easier — should schools have to switch back and forth between online and in-person options — most districts are building their online models to mimic in-person instruction as closely as possible.

They would be taught by district teachers using their own curriculum, closely follow their in-school schedules and have more opportunities for synchronous, or live, lessons than they did with the mostly independent learning models used in the spring.

Essentially, Dover Area Superintendent Tracy Krum said Tuesday, teachers are "just changing their location." 

More importantly, these online plans would be rigorous, with more traditional grading systems and attendance checks, unlike the plans offered in the spring — a sore spot for most parents.

Red Land High School Commencement 2020 at West Shore Stadium in Camp Hill, Friday, July 10, 2020. There would be 271 graduates receiving diplomas during two outdoor ceremonies splitting the class alphabetically to allow for social distancing. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But for those who still want a more independent learning model, districts are also developing or reimagining their own cyber schools — many with outside curriculum — to avoid losing students to state cyber charters.

More:More Pa. parents eyeing cyber charters amid COVID-19

Wolf on Friday said there's been a 7% increase in parents taking cyber charter options.

York Suburban board member James Sanders asked why his district needed to include an in-person option at all, citing a number of unknown costs and liabilities.

His district's cyber program would cost $150,000 to get started but would no doubt cost less per student than an in-person model, and online is the only option that's safe right now, he said.

Many parents are in favor of online learning for safety, such as the nearly 7,000 members of the Pennsylvania for a Safe Return to Schools Facebook group — which is in favor of keeping schools closed until counties report no new cases of the virus.

But others argue that taking away the option of in-person learning does not account for vulnerable groups, such as special needs students, K-5 children who are in crucial developmental stages and families with working parents.

Most districts' online models — except for the cyber programs, which offer more leeway — require a commitment from an adult to assist or supervise students.

Marginalized families might not be comfortable helping their children with work because of gaps in their own education, and many are essential workers who cannot stay home, noted Brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists, on a media call Friday.

Many Black children with single mothers are in this situation, and there's a concern that  they would be penalized for truancy if children don't log on, said the nonprofit's director of activism, Zakiya Sankara-Jabar.

Closer Look

Internet access is also a concern for school districts looking at online options.

Edward Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, said based on the rural nature of York County and his experience with its school districts, he would estimate about 30-35% of families do not have broadband access.

For Southern, less than 5% of the district's population does not have access to home internet, but hotspots are not always functional for synchronous learning, especially when parents are also working from home, said Assistant Superintendent Robert Bryson.

Parents are being asked to commit to the option they would choose so districts can start planning — yet parents can't plan without more details.

At South Eastern's virtual board meeting Thursday, there were 262 questions in the chat box by about 8 p.m.

Chris Stewart, CEO of Brightbeam, said national polls show women and parents of color are most concerned about reopening because of safety but fear distance learning will not be enough.

"This really is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of scenario right now," he said, but the best compromise is to make sure parents have options.