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Staring down reopening, Pa.'s educators beg state for direction

Gov. Tom Wolf talks with a group during his press conference at PA CareerLink in York Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Wolf was highlighting the importance of job-finding resources in light of the unemployment cause by the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Bill Kalina photo

School officials say they're nearing a breaking point as they navigate the final weeks before school starts with little guidance from the state. 

As fall approaches and many districts ready themselves to begin instruction in mid- to late August, local school board members, administrators and statewide unions say the state's lack of direction has left them in an impossible situation. 

Board members who might not possess the expertise to weigh in on reopening plans are given the task of approving them with virtually no help, said York Suburban board member Lois Ann Schroeder on Monday. 

“It’s yet another burden that’s placed upon the district and the district’s employees to put in place without any tangible guidance,” added fellow board member James Sanders.

“They’re shirking their responsibility," he said.

State Department of Health spokesperson Nate Wardle said Wednesday that Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is working on developing further guidance and recommendations and will release them as soon as they are available.

Wolf has repeatedly said that decisions about a district's reopening should be made locally. 

More:With little state input, school officials grapple with reopening plans

Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey testified Wednesday before state lawmakers, asking them to consider six measures — such as when masks must be worn and protocols for positive COVID-19 tests — in an effort to create a semblance of uniformity throughout Pennsylvania's school districts. 

“In a time of crisis last March, all of you — our duly elected legislators — provided schools with clarity and consistent statewide policy and protections for students, educators, and communities. We urge you to take that action again," he said later Wednesday in a statement. 

The clock is ticking as families — and school administrators — are still unsure what the best solution is to reopening schools or what all the answers are.

"We absolutely do not have all of the answers and all of the solutions to every 'what if,'" said Northeastern Superintendent Stacy Sidle to community members at recent school board meeting, noting that the answers they do have sometimes change.

Northeastern High School senior Kayla Gibson receives her  receives her diploma from Superintendent Dr. Stacey Sidle, Sunday, May 31, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

They've been changing since the Pennsylvania Department of Education first released guidance in June — a framework for district plans with emphasis on local decision-making.

Then, as most districts had nearly formed — or already approved — their reopening plans in July, the state Department of Health released updates on social distancing that threw several districts for a loop and caused some to switch to hybrid learning models.

Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine visit WellSpan York Hospital to thank health care workers and hospital staff for their essential role in protecting Pennsylvanians during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, July 22, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

In an op-ed from Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators Executive Director Mark DiRocco, he noted the “emotionally charged public discernment process” was unfair to districts.

"There are few good answers, few good plans or models, unclear and conflicting guidance, and no one feels great about the start of school," he wrote in the op-ed published Wednesday in The York Dispatch. "Simply put, our public schools have been unintentionally set up for failure."

PEW research shows adults are split on the best decision for reopening, and the difference are often political. 

About 36% of Republican-leaning adults support daily, in-person instruction, while 41% of Democratic-leaning adults preferred fully online plans. About 37% were in favor of a mix.

"School leaders have whiplash as they’re pushed and pulled in multiple directions by guidance that changes every few weeks or even days, and by communities that are increasingly polarized," DiRocco wrote.

He questioned whether these decisions about public health were best left up to medical experts and also asked about liability if districts get it wrong — as there is not yet any “hold harmless” legislation.

York City Superintendent Andrea Berry told her board recently that she would be remiss if she said there was no apprehension or fears to moving forward, as it's uncharted territory. 

More:Wolf ed head takes new job as schools grapple with reopening

“The leadership of this state, i.e the government, has put school districts in, yet again, an untenable position,” said York Suburban’s Sanders, by offering mandates with no clear idea of how to pay for them or of liability.

“It calls into question whether what has been pushed down upon all the school districts across the state is really for the health and safety of the public or has political motivations," he said.