Educators across the United States are as deeply conflicted as we have ever been.
On one hand, teaching and learning are our life; we yearn to teach students and devote our careers to improving their lives. On the other hand, we fear putting their lives — and those of our colleagues — at risk amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
As we approach this unprecedented school year, we all — from our leaders in Washington and Harrisburg to our neighbors and families — must act selflessly and with care for one another.
In June, the Pennsylvania Department of Education directed school districts to develop a plan to return students to in-person instruction in the fall. We agree; students plateaued or declined academically during our long closure in the spring, and we can better ensure equitable services when students are in school. Extended periods of virtual learning will cause academic gaps to widen between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” These same concerns are noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its recent statement, “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.”
Here in the School District of Lancaster, we are planning for three possible scenarios:
— “School dense,” in which all students attend school with traditional schedules.
— “School dilute,” or a hybrid model where students attend in cohorts some days or parts of days.
— And “virtual,” in which all students learn at home.
Of course, any in-person instruction requires enhanced cleaning, personal hygiene and social distancing protocols to mitigate transmission of illness.
Our school board approved a “school dilute” or hybrid plan last month. Students are scheduled to return in cohorts, beginning Aug. 24.
We also are offering a separate, fully online option, our Cyber Pathways Academy, for families concerned about sending students back to school. Many of our neighboring school districts are planning to return using a “school dense” plan and nearly all also offer families a separate cyber learning option.
We based our plan on myriad recommendations from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education. We remain in close contact with our local health care providers, as well.
Circumstances are changing rapidly, too, as schools across the country begin to reopen. It is necessary to continuously reevaluate our plan and adjust as these and other circumstances dictate.
However, for our reopening plan to be safe and successful, we need clear, consistent leadership from all levels of government. It is unwise and unfair to expect school directors and administrators to serve as public health policymakers. Specifically, we believe it is Gov. Tom Wolf’s responsibility to provide more leadership on if and when it is safe for schools to provide in-person instruction.
In addition, the General Assembly can support schools in two key ways:
— Waive requirements for in-school attendance. Authorize state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera to waive the current requirements for 180 days and 990 hours to be in-school attendance. Our hybrid plan follows state Department of Education guidance on social distancing, so students should not be penalized when they are learning at home.
— Pass cybercharter reform. School districts face exploding costs if families choose to leave the district for cybercharter schools over their local, district programs (like our Cyber Pathways Academy). We estimate up to 15% of our students may understandably choose a cyber option for health reasons. But if they leave the district for a cybercharter school, that charter tuition would cost our taxpayers more than $20 million, crippling our school district.
Now is the time for lawmakers to advance bipartisan legislation that protects local school districts from paying cybercharter tuition if students have a local option.
Finally, to our families, we ask: Act with safety in mind. Mask up whenever you are in a social space outside of your home, model good hand-washing hygiene for your children, monitor your own health and that of your family daily. When the time comes, our faculty, staff and other students are counting on you to send your children to school safe and healthy.
Like our colleagues across Lancaster County — with whom we consult regularly — we are confronting important societal decisions that, frankly, push the bounds of our expertise and our institutional capacity. We know that our decisions have ripple effects on not only our children and staff, but on our economy and the health of our whole community.
Please know that we act with deep concern for our community and make decisions with the best information we can find. For this school year at least, we invite all school communities to adopt our motto: “Together we can!”
Damaris Rau is the superintendent of the School District of Lancaster. Edith Gallagher is the president of the school board.