The state’s chief education official is urging school districts to develop plans for instruction as schools remain closed to students until at least April 9 because of the coronavirus.
“We are strongly urging school districts to not wait, to not stand on the periphery, to really engage students,” Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, said in a call with reporters late Wednesday morning.
While schools aren’t required to offer educational services to students during the shutdown, Rivera said he hopes schools are moving forward with alternate modes of instruction or, at least, optional enrichment activities to keep students engaged at home.
On the call, Rivera and other state education officials discussed the challenges schools face ensuring equity for all students in those educational plans and what the state is doing to support their efforts.
Federal law states schools must provide a free and accessible education to every child, no matter the child’s needs.
That might be a struggle for schools offering online instruction, but Matt Stem, deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, said that shouldn’t be a reason to offer nothing.
He said schools should make decisions “in good faith.”
The U.S. Department of Education shared similar guidance Saturday, offering flexibility when serving students with special needs.
“Nothing issued by this Department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a press release. “We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear.”
Meanwhile, the Education Law Center, together with more than 70 other advocacy organizations, on Tuesday called on the governor to issue an executive order requiring schools to provide educational services that meet the needs of all students, including those with disabilities and English learners.
“This is an extraordinary crisis that demands collaboration and partnership,” said Margie Wakelin, staff attorney at the Education Law Center. “We are hopeful that the state will respond to this challenge by issuing strong guidance that supports our schools to serve all students.”
Rivera said the state has been coordinating with intermediate units across Pennsylvania to assist school districts making the shift online — a move some Lancaster County school districts have already announced.
At least six county school districts said they plan to adopt online instruction in the next two weeks, in addition to school districts offering optional enrichment resources.
Several area private schools, including Lancaster Country Day School, Veritas Academy and Lancaster Catholic High School, have already made the shift.
Another notable topic Rivera touched on: high school graduation.
Rivera said efforts being made to ensure high school seniors, and students in career and technical education programs, graduate on time despite this year’s unprecedented schedule.
He ended the call with an optimistic message.
“We’re going to get through this,” Rivera said. “But we’re only going to get through this together.”
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