On Friday, March 13, with 41 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all schools closed for two weeks.
Two weeks later, Wolf pulled the plug on in-person instruction for the rest of the school year.
Fast-forward to today: Pennsylvania has had at least 129,474 confirmed COVID-19 cases – 6,351 in Lancaster County – and five county school districts will welcome students back today for the first time in nearly five months.
That’s right — after an abrupt shift to remote learning in the spring, followed by months of speculation and debate, evolving (and sometimes conflicting) guidance from the state and federal governments, and last-minute planning by school boards, the first day of school has arrived.
For most of the 69,000 students in Lancaster County public schools, the first day of school means resuming in-person instruction with a range of health and safety measures, such as social distancing and universal mask-wearing, in place. Students could be in-person five days a week or as little as two days a week. For others, the start of school will be fully remote, either by the family’s choice or by the district’s.
Each school district surveyed families seeking feedback about which option is best for their children. LNP | LancasterOnline asked for the results of those surveys, and, among the handful of districts that responded, the percentage of families opting for in-person instruction in each district ranged from around 70% to 80%.
Every Lancaster County school district plans to offer in-person instruction except for School District of Lancaster and Octorara Area School District, which serves students from Lancaster and Chester counties.
In-person instruction could quickly become a thing of the past, however, if schools are consumed by COVID-19 outbreaks, as some schools across the country have already experienced.
In Georgia, for example, nearly 2,500 students and 62 staff members in the Cherokee County School District have been ordered to quarantine, and 71 out of 82 counties in Mississippi have reported cases in schools.
Administrators, teachers and school board members here have been working all summer to try to prevent that scenario. Meanwhile, state and federal guidance trickled in slowly, with the latest guidance -- including an order requiring all students and staff to wear face coverings even if they’re socially distanced -- coming just last week.
Republican state lawmakers have been critical of the Wolf administration for announcing guidance so late in the game.
School boards, meanwhile, have approved their state-mandated health and safety plans, which outline all the precautions schools will take — from separating desks 3 to 6 feet apart to decommissioning water fountains.
Many school boards have revised their plans to include a hybrid or blended instructional model after originally planning a return to full-time in-person instruction. At least one school district, Conestoga Valley, is still tweaking theirs. The school board was to meet Monday night.
Teachers in the district want to shift to a hybrid scheduled to allow for social distancing in classrooms, but the school board has twice rejected the idea. Teachers rallied last night and the week before in favor of a hybrid model rather than fully in-person.
Meanwhile, classes at Conestoga Valley are expected to begin in a week.
One thing is for sure: It’s sure to be a school year unlike any other in recent history.