As Pennsylvania classrooms remain dark, area educators seek ways to deliver instruction.
While many school districts had planned to offer online lessons, that remains on hold while leaders try to meet the needs of all students, including those who receive special education or English as a second language services. Not meeting the specific needs of those students, which educators say can be nearly impossible in a solely online format, could result in litigation.
“We desperately want to be able to provide instruction to the best possible extent that we can, but how can we do it?” asked Valley View Superintendent Michael Boccella, Ed.D. “We feel as though our hands are tied. We obviously want to continue to educate kids, but at the same time we worry about opening ourselves up to violations.”
Seniors should soon be preparing for proms and graduations. Kindergarten students should be learning how to read. Instead, educators statewide remain uncertain whether students will return to classrooms this school year because of the coronavirus. Kansas already canceled all in-person classes for the remainder of the school year, and other states may follow.
“There’s uncertainty with every level of what is happening,” Abington Heights Superintendent Michael Mahon, Ph.D., said. “In the end, our primary thing right now is keeping everyone safe, so that we’re in the position to rebound from this and make up what is missed. … It’s a learning experience we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
Some districts had prepared teachers and students for online instruction to begin when schools initially closed for 10 days last week.
Angel Syrylo worked with her sons, in kindergarten and third grade at Isaac Tripp Elementary School, with online lessons and packets teachers sent home. The Scranton School District stopped that instruction last week, pending more guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
For now, Syrylo — like many other parents in the region — tries to enforce math and reading skills so they won’t be forgotten.
“It’s all up in the air, and as a parent, it’s scary,” she said. “It’s all around concerning. We just try to do what we can.”
Other districts sent students home with workbooks, homework and projects. As of now, teachers cannot require that students complete the work.
North Pocono students can access online materials for enrichment or review, but teachers cannot give assignments, Superintendent Bryan McGraw said.
School leaders wait for additional guidance and are trying to find ways to meet the needs of all students.
“If you provide any type of alternative learning, you have to uphold FAPE (free appropriate public education),” Old Forge Superintendent Erin Keating, Ed.D., said.
Federal law requires a school district provide a “free appropriate public education” to each qualified person with a disability who is in the school district’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person’s disability.
If districts provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Private schools do not have the same requirements, so Scranton Preparatory School and the Diocese of Scranton conducted remote learning last week.
Gov. Tom Wolf first announced March 13 that schools would remain closed through March 27. On Thursday, he ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close, including schools.
As of late Friday, the state had not decided whether to extend the school closures past March 27, according to the department of education. The state also canceled Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and Keystone exams for this spring.
For the last week, districts scrambled to provide free grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches for children. In Scranton, the district distributed nearly 600 meals a day at schools across the city. Abington Heights averaged 225 lunches daily through its drive-up service.
Maintenance workers cleaned and sanitized buildings and hourly employees, including aides and support staff, went without pay in some districts.
The governor will not require schools to meet 180 instructional days by June 30, but if students do return to the classroom, leaders do not know how they will adjust the school calendar.
If students return at the end of the month, teachers could adjust the curriculum easily, Keating said. If students do not return at all, a “massive curricular adjustment” would be required, she said.
Boccella thinks about the empty desks and untaught lessons.
“We’re deeply concerned about the potential negative impact it can have, especially as it goes on for an extended amount of time,” the Valley View superintendent said. “We understand the concerns of parents. This has forced many parents to juggle work, unexpected childcare, providing education for their kids. We so appreciate what parents are doing. We, as educators, want nothing more than to educate kids. We wish we could do more.”
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