Baron Elementary School (copy)

This is a fourth grade classroom at Manheim Central's Baron Elementary School, at 123 E. Gramby St. in Manheim Monday, Aug. 12, 2019.

While schools are expected to reopen in the fall, according to Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, there remains myriad unknowns regarding how education might change due to the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

From mask-wearing and social distancing to remediation and blended schedules, Lancaster County school officials say they’re preparing plans flexible enough to follow guidance from health officials come August, but it’s difficult to project what exactly school might look like.

Perhaps one thing, however, is for sure.

“It’s going to be an interesting summer,” Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss said.

During a state Senate Education Committee hearing Monday, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said his intention is for students to return for in-person classes in time for the 2020-21 school year. School buildings have been closed since mid-March because of the health crisis.

Rivera said Monday that the state is working on a comprehensive set of guidelines for schools transitioning from remote to in-person instruction in the fall. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director said during a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday that the agency expects to release “soon” expansive guidelines for states to reopen schools and other institutions, The New York Times reported.

The news of likely reopening was well-received by school officials here who say most students are better off learning in school than at home.

“We know the impact our teachers have on our students, and we miss seeing them in classrooms,” School District of Lancaster Damaris Rau said. “We absolutely want to have students return to school as soon as it is safely possible.”

A different kind of school

Lancaster has created a series of task forces to examine different models for the fall, Rau said.

Classes could end up split, with half the class coming in the morning and the other half in the afternoon; students might alternate days in school and learning remotely; locations around the community might be available for teachers to meet in small student groups, Rau said.

The district, she said, is also expanding its cyber academy’s capacity “to ensure families who do not feel safe sending students to school have a local cyber option with a personal touch,” Rau said.

In the Southern End, Solanco is also forming task forces and brainstorming what instruction might look like next school year. The district might offer more online or blended options similar to what some students already participate in, Superintendent Bliss said.

One priority, he said, will be assessing student progress and bringing students who have fallen behind during remote learning up to speed.

“Truthfully,” Bliss said, “it may take multiple years to catch up instructionally.”

Warwick Superintendent April Hershey said the district is working on a flexible reopening plan and considering various scenarios. Those may include wearing masks, social distancing and enhanced cleaning and sanitation. Hershey said the district’s priorities include protecting the health and safety of students, staff and families, providing nutrition for students and offering equitable educational opportunities for every student.

‘It's a Pandora's box’

Eagerly awaiting the reopening of schools is Manheim Central Superintendent Peter J. Aiken.

“I believe that we owe this to our kids, to our parents and the community at large to get kids back in school,” he said.

Aiken, however, expressed concerns related to the guidelines that may be in place in the fall. Some restrictions, such as smaller class sizes, may not be applicable on a daily basis, especially for a district facing a $2 million budget deficit next year, he said.

“Where is the money going to come from?” Aiken said about potentially having to hire more faculty and staff. “It’s a Pandora’s box.”

The district, he said, will make a good-faith effort to put protections in place. But offering a completely risk-free environment isn’t possible, he said, and to say it is would only give families false hope.

“I can’t give you an assurance that your kids are not going to get sick in school. That’s not realistic,” he said. “But we’re going to do the best we can.”