Cathy Shaffer is conflicted about sending her 12-year-old daughter to Selinsgrove Middle School next month.
“This is all so unfamiliar,” the Monroe Township mother said of schools reopening while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. “I do want Laci to be in school. She’s a very social girl and does better with structure and being in a classroom with teachers. But I want her to be healthy.”
Health and safety is a concern of parents, students and educators across the state with the impending arrival of a new school year in the shadow of a pandemic.
Education officials have been working steadily since Pennsylvania schools shut down in March to come up with a plan to safely reopen schools in the 2020 fall semester.
Each district is required to develop its own reopening plan and administrators have been getting guidance from their local intermediate units, health professionals and parents.
The end result is a hybrid of learning options, from in-class instruction with face masks and social distancing required, virtual classes, online learning and cyber school.
Classrooms will look different for students and teachers, said Joseph Stroup, director of curriculum and instruction at Midd-West School District.
To enable students and teachers to stay 6 feet from one another and allow students to remove face coverings in the classroom, he said, shelving and other items will be pushed to the wall or removed.
Many will require elementary students to eat lunch in their classrooms, with older students having lunch in cafeterias set up with additional tables or other rooms.
Recess, physical education and extracurricular sports will be offered while the state is in the green phase but details are still being worked out at each school.
Mask-wearing — both pro and con — has been a major concern for the parents while transportation is the biggest, and most costly hurdle, for the districts.
While Sherry Blazer’s 14-year-old daughter doesn’t like wearing masks, Blazer said, she will return to classes at Midd-West in August even though the district is giving students the option of being in school, learning remotely through virtual classrooms, online or cyberschool or a mix.
The district will provide masks or clear face shields to students each day at a cost of between 67 cents and $1 per mask, said Stroup.
Many schools are asking parents to help out with transportation, since there is no option for social distancing on buses, and all riders will be required to wear masks. Adding more buses to the schedule would be too costly, administrators said.
Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the federal government should allot $175 billion nationwide to help school districts.
“We need to really focus on making sure, if they’re going to open, they’re going to open safely,” Askey said. “And everyone has to feel like every resource is there, every plan is there.”
Chris Snyder, president of the Midd-West Education Association, said everyone is working to ensure safety is the priority.
“The staff is concerned about everyone’s safety but knows it is essential to get back to learning this fall, safely and with respect to individual needs,” he said.
Bill Zeigler, a fifth-grade teacher in Shikellamy School District, said he is excited about resuming face-to-face instruction.
“I can’t wait for the first day of school to arrive,” he said.
Zeigler also said he is a bit nervous with COVID-19 cases still rising.
“I’d be lying to say a little part of me isn’t nervous,” he said. I know every precaution will be taken to keep our students and the staff healthy, but regardless I’m anxious and excited.”
Schools in the Valley will be relying on parents and students to monitor the health of students before sending them to school each day. Students that become ill during the school day will be isolated until a parent can pick them up.
Shaffer said she’ll decide, with input from her 12-year-old daughter, how the seventh-grader will receive an education once all the options are presented in the Selinsgrove school district.
“I need to see a concrete plan from the school,” she said.
Those will be available during the next couple of weeks as school boards approve individual district reopening plans.
In other parts of the state, school districts are tackling the challenge of reopening in different ways.
In Crawford County, Penncrest Superintendent Timothy Glasspool said district staff and administrators will ask parents to screen their students before coming to school, performing temperature checks or checking for any signs of symptoms. Any student feeling sick or unwell should stay home.
“We cannot stress this enough,” Glasspool wrote. “Schools will be flexible with the number of student absences.”
District employees will screen themselves before coming to work. Daily temperature checks will occur for students and staff, and anyone who becomes symptomatic during the school day will be isolated.
Jarrin Sperry, superintendent of Conneaut School District, said it wouldn’t be feasible to test students each day as they arrive at school.
“Logistically, I just don’t think that’s possible,” he said, describing a potential bottleneck of students at the school entrance waiting to have their temperature taken. “We’ll have to rely on students and families reporting if someone is ill.”
Seton Catholic School in Meadville has worked closely with local school districts in crafting its safety plan for COVID-19. Despite having fewer students than public schools, at only 135 students spread out across nine grade levels, Seton Principal Christine Hess said the school is taking the safety of students very seriously.
“Our concerns are definitely for the health and safety of our students and staff,” Hess said.
The Catholic school has not yet released its full safety plan, since it is pending approval from the Diocese of Erie, but Hess said temperature checks will be done whenever a student becomes ill at school.
Hess said there has been some discussion regarding pre-screening students before letting them into the building, and the school may ask parents to perform temperature checks at home before bringing their kids to the building. The school will also be encouraging parents to keep their kids home if they feel even slightly sick.
Joe Sylvester and Rick Green of the Meadville Tribune contributed to this article.