New PA Guidelines May Help Pottsgrove Move to Hybrid Learning

HARRISBURG PA – New, science-based metrics that rely on local public health data to determine if Pennsylvania schools should open with in-person classroom or online instruction were jointly supplied Monday (Aug. 10, 2020) by the state departments of Health and Education.

The just-issued guidelines are already being examined by the Pottsgrove School District. Its Board of School Directors’ voted last week to decide students would initially return to education from Aug. 31 (Monday) through at least Dec. 2 using the online-only Pottsgrove Virtual Academy. That plan seems unlikely to be changed, with a scant 20 days left until the start of schooling.

Beyond the December date, though, district Superintendent Dr. William Shirk said during the board’s Tuesday (Aug. 11) meeting, the state-suggested yardsticks could help Pottsgrove determine how quickly and safely it might open its buildings to students for the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic year using a hybrid combination of classroom-and-virtual learning.

The guidelines, titled “Determining Instructional Models During the COVID-19 Pandemic, are available online, here.

How the state’s new guidelines work

The state’s recommendations use weekly rates of coronavirus infection by population, and percentages of positive test results in each county, to determine the appropriate degree of opening for local schools. They range, Shirk reported, from “substantial” levels (fully remote learning only), to “moderate” (hybrid models allowable), to “low” (allowing in-person instruction).

Pottsgrove currently falls into the moderate category, he said.

The Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, on which area school districts depend for some specialty education programs and bulk supplies’ purchases, will be able to regularly provide Pottsgrove with infection and test data for Lower, Upper, and West Pottsgrove townships, Shirk said. That will make it easier to update school directors – perhaps weekly, he added – on when the district could consider alternatives to a virtual-only model.

During Tuesday’s meeting, both board President Robert Lindgren and Vice President Al Leach cautioned any considered change would take at least 30 days to put into place. “I don’t believe it’s a flip of a switch and we go back,” Leach noted. Instead, he said, “it’s sort of a process.”

In fact, Shirk has already proposed a timeline for “how and when to discuss future decisions” on Pottsgrove’s readiness to switch models. He suggested the district might review data under the new guidelines by Nov. 4, and if appropriate ask the school board to decide by Nov. 10 for or against a move to hybrid and virtual learning. If warranted, that statistics-based change could occur by Dec. 1, he said.

Teachers’ union reaction to the guidelines

The new recommendations represent expert guidance school leaders need to keep everyone safe, Pennsylvania State Education Association Assistant Director Of Communications Chris Lilienthal told the Public News Service. “This provides that path forward,” he said, “so that we can make those decisions with good data and good science,” he said. The association represents unionized teachers.

Still missing from the guidelines, Lilienthal claimed, are further state directives for in-person instruction.

Earlier health and education rules make it clear, he said, that with few exceptions all teachers and students must wear masks for in-person instruction. “We still need state directives that make it absolutely clear that, in addition to wearing a mask, everyone must maintain six feet of social distance when they’re in the school building,” he said.

Lilienthal suggested the state also should have clear guidance for what happens when a student or faculty member tests positive for coronavirus, and when schools should consider closing buildings.

Disclosure: Andrea Sears of the Public News Service (PNS) contributed to this article. PNS receives funding from the Pennsylvania State Education Association for coverage of budget policy and priorities, early childhood education, education, livable wages and working families.