HARRISBURG — As school districts across the state race to produce reopening plans, the state’s largest teachers union is expressing concern about how effectively schools will be able to provide a safe environment as coronavirus continues to spread.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association joined with the Pennsylvania School Board Association and other school groups on a task force that generated a 100-plus page set of recommendations.

Members who feel they have health concerns that make teaching or working in school with students dangerous are being told to apply for accommodation, said Chris Lillenthal, a union spokesman.

The state requirement that districts release their plans is important so that everyone has a chance to respond to the plan, he said.

“We are very understanding that there are members who are concerned,” he said.

One of the key issues as districts generate health and safety plans is how closely the local officials make decisions based on the data and the need to protect everyone in the school community, he said.

“We just want to make sure they don’t cut corners, he said.

Online backup plans

Rich Askey, the president of the PSEA on Thursday called on the state to get all school districts to prepare backup plans in case schools do need to move back to online teaching.

“Unfortunately, an increasing number of Pennsylvania educators and parents are concerned that reopening schools for in-person instruction poses significant health risks that, in the current environment, may be impossible to completely prevent,” he said.

Dr. David Rubin, a general pediatrician and director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said that seeing the steps hospitals took to ensure that staff and patients were safe “really helped relieve a lot of anxiety. I think teachers should feel the same way.”

If the public embraces efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus, so the rate of transmission in the community is under control and schools roll out “strong protocols” on the use of personal protective equipment and social distancing, teachers should be able to feel safe.

The moves to prepare to reopen schools come in a situation that remains very fluid — as the state continues to try to slow the resurgence of coronavirus.

Gov. Tom Wolf and health officials on Wednesday made it clear that a move to close down nightclubs and limit restaurants and bars to 25 percent occupancy was intended to get the spread of coronavirus under control so that the state is in a better position to reopen schools in late August.

Wolf said that if conditions don’t improve, it’s not clear that schools will be able to reopen.

“I don’t think it’s going to be me pulling the plug,” he said. “It’s going to be teachers not wanting to go back to school. Parents not wanting to send their kids back to school. We can wave all the magic wands we want, flip all the switches we want, if they don’t make individual decisions that they think it’s safe to go back, they’re not going to go back.”

Local plans

The state has directed schools to produce plans detailing their strategies for complying with state and federal guidelines for social-distancing, sanitizing and infection control.

Those plans must be completed, approved by the local school board, presented to the Department of Education and posted online for public scrutiny before schools reopen.

About 1-in-5 of the state’s 500 school districts have released health and safety plans explaining how they intend to reopen schools, according to the state Department of Education.

“Keep in mind the plans are dynamic and schools may make changes and have them approved by the local governing board,” said Nicole Reigelman, an Education Department spokeswoman.

One of the key measures that schools must manage is the state’s mask mandate — which requires that students wear face coverings while walking around school and whenever they can’t maintain 6-feet of social distancing.

Due to those social-distancing requirements, students will be required to wear face coverings in class unless the school can provide enough space between desks.

That means that school officials will be looking very carefully at how they can reconfigure classrooms to create as much space as possible, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

“I think you will see that all unnecessary furniture is going to be removed from classrooms so they can create as much space as they can,” DiRocco said.

Plans vary

The measures that schools are considering are wide-ranging and with the impact of the outbreak varying, schools in some parts of the state have announced more aggressive measures.

The Philadelphia School District announced this week that under its plan, students will attend two days a week, and study online three days a week. The district said it wants to limit classroom occupancy to 25 "when feasible," and that schools should install Plexiglas barriers in classrooms that aren't big enough to space desks at least six feet apart.

The Pittsburgh School District has announced a similar plan, with students either attending Monday and Tuesday, and studying online the rest of the week, or attending school on Thursday and Friday and studying online the rest of the week.

Some smaller districts are considering similar moves. Conemaugh Valley School District in Cambria County has announced that all students, teachers and staff will be temperature screened upon arrival at school and for the first nine weeks, students will attend in-person school Monday-Thursday. On Friday, students will participate in classes online and the school will undergo a deep-cleaning.

The Richland School District in Cambria County is also preparing to use a hybrid in-school/remote learning approach so that only half the students are in class while the remainder study online.

On the other hand, some other rural school districts seem poised to enter the school year with plans focused on trying to keep operations closer to normal.

The Hermitage School District in Mercer County will also temperature screen students and staff. Its plan indicates that all classrooms will “spread out” students as much as possible, while arranging furniture so that students all face the same direction.

Also in Mercer County, the Sharpsville School District plan calls for increased cleaning and indicates that “social distancing guidelines will be utilized” while students “follow their traditional schedules when feasible.”

Neighboring states

Ohio schools have been given slightly less strict requirements for mask use.

In that state, staff members at school are required to wear masks, unless they are alone.

Districts are required to implement a face-covering policy, according to Ohio’s guidelines which "strongly" recommend students in third grade and up wear masks.

The Ohio guidelines indicate “when possible” school staff should maintain 6-foot social distancing between students “in all school environments."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated that he will announce in early August whether or how schools in New York reopen.

In the meantime, the New York Department of Education is requiring that school districts in that state complete their health and safety plans by July 31. Those plans should require that all staff and students wear masks “whenever social distancing cannot be maintained,” according to the state’s guidance. Those plans are also supposed to spell out how schools will provide six feet of social distancing space between students, “whenever possible.”

New York’s guidelines also direct local schools to plan to offer both in-person and online classes, if needed.

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