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EDITORIAL: School districts need help to find a new normal

York Dispatch Editorial Board

In a normal year, families would be doing their back-to-school shopping right now. Kids would be finishing one last camp or trying to fit in a last day at the pool. Teachers would be decorating their classrooms. 

But this is 2020, and nothing is normal now.

Instead, here we are, two to three weeks away from the start of classes in York County's 16 school districts, and each district is tasked with finding its own path to how it will continue the job of educating students this fall.

As with so many situations during this coronavirus pandemic, it didn't have to be like this.

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As Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey testified Wednesday before state lawmakers, the state took the lead in March, with Gov. Tom Wolf closing all of the schools in the state initially and then extending that order to the end of the academic year.

And while that shutdown undoubtedly slowed the spread of the coronavirus and helped keep COVID-19 from overwhelming our health care systems, the lack of quick testing along with a rush to reopen and a resistance to wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines has kept the virus in play.  

By Thursday, 92 people in York County had died from COVID-19 and 2,444 had tested positive for the coronavirus. Across the state, 7,282 have died, and nationally more than 158,000 people have died. 

Granted, only 5% of the 116,521 people in Pennsylvania who have tested positive are 18 or younger. But we are well past the point of community spread of this disease and far removed from universal testing. 

Faced with the prospect of bringing hundreds of children into a building at once and then sending them home again, day after day, or to continue the experiment of teaching children online while they (and their parents) remain at home, school districts are struggling to decide what will work best. 

How many desks will fit into a classroom if they are spaced 6 feet apart? How will children react if their teacher is wearing a mask? How can students change classes and maintain social distance in the halls?

These are questions that the state should be helping to answer. But it isn't.

Instead, districts that began making plans in June were hit with new social distancing guidelines in July, and now the Wolf administration is getting ready to release still more recommendations. Sometime. Soon. Really. Maybe.

In the meantime, 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.

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

We understand that the state wants to leave some discretion to local school districts and that Wolf has come under tremendous pressure over his administration's orders to close businesses and for people to wear masks in public.

But it is past time for the state to step up and make recommendations. It is obvious that the coronavirus pandemic is not nearing an end. It is also obvious that children learn more readily in in-person classes than online. There are problems with internet access for many, there are children who live with their grandparents, there are teachers who are at high risk.

With so many factors to consider at once, the normal course would be to receive some guidance from the state or even the federal government on how to keep children safe and learning and keep their parents employed.

But that would be the normal course. And this is 2020 — nothing is normal now.