House Democratic Policy Committee hearing

The House Democratic Policy Committee held a school reopening hearing on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. 

By the time the next school year rolls around, Pennsylvania students will have been away from physical classrooms for more than 25 weeks.

Whether students return at that point will be up to an unpredictable virus that has surged in parts of the state and country in recent weeks, raising concerns about reopening too early.

“If we turn into Texas by September, we might not be reopening schools at all,” Democratic state Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster said Tuesday during a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on reopening schools.

Sturla, who chairs the committee, and his fellow Democrats questioned state school officials during the semi-virtual hearing about how Pennsylvania schools can reopen safely and responsibly.

Matthew Stem, the state’s deputy secretary of elementary and secondary education, said after an unprecedented 2019-20 school year, the goal this summer is for schools to create health and safety plans so in-person instruction can resume.

“Now we need to direct our energy to how to resume instruction safely,” Stem said.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around a report, conducted by the Regional Educational Laboratories Mid-Atlantic for the state Department of Education and released last week, that outlined ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

While social distancing and wearing masks would help, the safest scenario is one that limits student contact, Brian Gill, one of the report’s authors, said. Thousands of simulations showed blended schedules, with groups of students rotating from in-person instruction to remote learning during the week, best mitigated the virus’ spread.

The blended, or hybrid, model also allows vulnerable students who may not feel safe physically attending school to keep learning online, Gill said. It also makes it easier to shift to remote instruction if schools were to shutter again.

Gill said if five people are infected in a school, then it’s time to consider closing temporarily.

“Some schools might do everything right and still get a spike of infections and have to close down,” Gill said.

Considering the virus’ unpredictable nature and further learning loss it could potentially yield, Sturla floated the idea of year-round schools. While the state doesn’t have an official stance on that, Stem said, the rationale behind an extended school year is “compelling.”

He also encouraged school boards to consider looking at ways to enhance the academic calendar in light of the virus.

Others to testify Tuesday were representatives of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania State Education Association.