HARRISBURG — School leaders are exploring a variety of alternatives for trying to manage the risk of coronavirus outbreaks while reopening, education officials told a House panel Wednesday.
School officials have about 50 days to figure out what school’s going to look like and they have a “staggering” number of decisions to make, Eric Eshbach, retired superintendent of the Northern York School District, told the House education committee.
At the moment, one of the biggest hurdles to clear is sorting out how to get kids to and from school, Eshbach said.
In normal circumstances, a school bus can carry 72 young children. Eshbach said that if the guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on social-distancing on school buses are followed closely, buses wouldn’t be allowed to have more than 10 kids on them.
“It’s not feasible,” he said, adding that school officials would likely look to have more students on buses if they are wearing face masks.
The state has provided preliminary guidance to schools, indicating that schools are allowed to resume in-person instruction if they are in the yellow or green phases of the state’s red-yellow-green reopening protocol. At the moment, the entire state is in yellow or green phases.
The state has told local school districts that they can resume in-person classes after they complete health and safety plans that spell out how they will follow the state guidelines to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Those plans must be posted online for the public, and provided to the Department of Education.
Tuesday, the Wolf Administration announced Pennsylvania will provide $150 million in federal stimulus funding to help schools absorb increased costs associated with trying to avoid future coronavirus outbreaks. Each school district that submits a qualifying application will receive at least $120,000 through the program, according to the Department of Education.
Lawmakers and educators agreed that finding a way to get students back in class in an environment as close to normal as possible is crucial, especially after the disruption caused by the state’s move to abruptly close schools March 16 as the coronavirus pandemic hit Pennsylvania.
State Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin County, said that based on her children’s experiences, “I question that they learned anything” after schools closed.
Joe Schuermann, a math teacher at Hempfield Area High School in Westmoreland County, said he teaches AP calculus, so his students would typically be considered the school’s “best of the best,” and yet, “they struggled” to adjust to the challenges of participating in school remotely.
“These kids need to be back in school,” he said.
Eshbach said that among the key sticking points in planning include:
• How to get kids to and from school;
• How to ensure that schools are cleaned sufficiently to limit transmission;
• How to ensure that schools recognize that students are sick and isolate them promptly to protect other students;
• Whether to employ scheduling that allows students to attend in-person half the time and remaining home to study remotely the rest of the time;
• How to control the crowds in school cafeterias to provide social-distancing;
• How and whether to require the use of masks by students and staff;
• And how to manage extracurricular activities, like marching band and chorus.
Schuermann said officials in his school district have not made any decisions about employing the A-B format — that involves rotating with half the kids in-class and half at home — but the district has been discussing it.
Under this plan, there’d be a camera filming his class while he wears a microphone so students can hear the audio while watching online.
“There’s a price tag for that,” he said.
State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford County , said most parents who are willing to send their children back to school will be doing so with the expectation that school will be as close to normal as possible.
Schools can reasonably be expected to step up cleaning practices, take steps to protect vulnerable populations, and add hand sanitizers, he said.
But proposals that involve having children studying remotely half the time to limit the number of children physically in school will create too much of a burden on families when parents need to work, he said.
“I think it’s impossible,” he said.
It won’t be the only challenge facing schools.
Schuermann said districts could try to make it easier for students to drive to school, to limit the number of students on buses. But that wouldn’t help families where the parents can’t drive the kids to school or don’t have an extra vehicle for a student to use.
Kim said schools will need to have access to testing so they can quickly respond to students to test positive.
She questioned how schools will be able to determine if a child with a fever has coronavirus or the flu and whether students will be told they can’t come back to school for two weeks if they come down with a fever.
Kim said decisions about reopening schools or how to reopen them should also consider how coronavirus impacts children, noting that most data suggests children don’t get the virus very often and may not get as sick as adults when they get it.
Eshbach said that schools can’t ignore the fact that while their purpose is educating children, there are adults working in the schools who need protection from coronavirus as well.
“It’s a huge challenge,” he said.