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Area Schools Faced with Challenges in Providing Education During COVID-19 Forced Shut Down
CLARION CO., Pa. (EYT) – As schools move into the third week of Governor Wolf’s mandatory shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic with no end in sight, area schools are faced with the challenge of providing education to their students.
However, it is not as easy as it would seem.
A federal law that requires school districts to provide all students an equal education is hampering many rural and urban school districts, not just in Pennsylvania but across the country.
According to a Facebook post by Pennsylvania State Representative Donna Oberlander, “While there has been some discussion at the state level to have districts do the “best” they can to reach the equitable education requirement for new instruction – Senate Bill 751 “would ensure” school districts are making a “good faith effort” to develop a plan to offer continuing education during the closure of schools, with the plans to be developed locally by each district with guidance from the state Department of Education and technical assistance from the districts’ intermediate units.”
The plans would need to be submitted to the department and published on the school districts’ websites, Oberlander added.
Clarion Area Superintendent Joe Carrico said without a firm direction from the United States Department of Education, he isn’t willing to even think about that option.
“Federal law overrides state law,” Carrico told exploreClarion.com. “I want to see a waiver from the federal government that goes through the state that you don’t have to worry about that issue. These are unprecedented times, but that does not change the law.”
“We are bound by federal and state law that every student receives what we put out there,” Bill Vonada, the Superintendent of the Cranberry School District in Venango County, explained.
“That is the biggest challenge we face right now.”
Punxsutawney Superintendent Thomas Lesniewski reiterated what Vonada said.
“If you attempt to present new material, you have to provide equity for all students,” Lesniewski added.
While most school districts weren’t ready to start new instruction as of Friday, March 27, Brookville decided to move forward with what it called “planned” instruction to most of its students even before Wolf’s announcement to extend the school closure indefinitely.
“Because some of our seniors need the additional grades to graduate, because some of our underclassmen need the fourth marking period to pass, and because we want to motivate our students to participate and do good work, we have decided to implement planned instruction in grades 3 through 12,” Brookville Superintendent Erich May wrote in a letter to parents last week.
“Students in grades K to 2 will receive enrichment and review, and their activities will be optional.”
Beyond the laws regarding equitable education access, A-C Valley Superintendent David McDeavitt said equitable education is written into many of the districts’ education plans.
“That is really a hot discussion right now,” McDeavitt said. “Everyone looks and views the federal law differently. We are trying to ensure that we are able to provide some opportunity for learning to all of our students. That presents a challenge because we have certain students that have varying needs for learning that we are able to support on our campuses but not the same way at home.
“One of the biggest struggles for rural school districts is to offer the same education at home whether online or packets or whatever. It is hard to replicate some of the things certain students need when they are at home.”
Internet access, or the lack of it, is what is causing one of the major issues that is keeping both rural and urban Pennsylvania schools from meeting the equitable education requirement, according to every superintendent contacted by exploreClarion.com.
It isn’t just about having internet, but also making sure the students all have a device that allows them to learn.
“The technology aspect of making sure every child has a device plus internet capability for instruction to take place properly is one of the biggest challenges we currently face,” Brockway Superintendent Jeff Vizza explained.
According to Vizza, a rough estimate is that 10 to 15 percent of the students in the Brockway School District don’t have internet access, but he emphasized that was only a guesstimate.
North Clarion Superintendent Steve Young said a survey of the district’s high school students shows internet access is only available to about 80 percent of those students.
McDeavitt, from A-C Valley, said his district is trying to work on the number of students that have internet access but that, in itself, presents a challenge that might not give the district accurate numbers.
“We are using our automated phone system to reach out to people to fill out the survey, but they need internet access to fill out the survey,” McDeavitt said. “So, the numbers we get back might not be reflective of the students’ internet capabilities.”
At Cranberry, the district doesn’t have accurate information on the number of students who have internet access. The last survey of something like that was done eight years ago, in 2012, according to Vonada. At that time, it was about 90 percent.
“Obviously, that was eight years ago,” Vonada said. “(That survey) doesn’t tell us what the current numbers look like.”
Carrico, Clarion’s head man, said even if students do have internet access, not all internet access is created equal.
“There are a number of issues,” Carrico said. “You have to guarantee equipment, internet speed and access to the internet not only for the students but also for access to the faculty. What if a faculty member lives in Miola and doesn’t have access?”
Carrico said until a company or the government steps up and rolls out a minimal benchmark for the accessibility process, that will continue to be an issue in both rural and urban areas of the country.
“What do you do with people on data plans?” Carrico said. “Say you have three kids at home and you buy an ‘X’ amount of megs and those three kids are on the internet doing instruction. It is not as easy as saying give the kids a Chromebook and the teachers go to a platform.
“That is what is frustrating with us. I think that is consistent with rural Pennsylvania and urban Pennsylvania. I saw that Philadelphia isn’t doing any new instruction and Woodland Hills (near Pittsburgh) isn’t doing anything because of those reasons.”
Carrico said what compounds the issue is that in other scenarios – say like the weather – the school district could go to churches or libraries and ask if students could use their internet access.
“With this situation, we have social distancing,” Carrico said. “I can’t even call the library or the church and have 12 kids go to Hope Rising Church. That is the issue. We are so stranded.
“And, at Clarion, we are in a premium spot. We are less than 70 square miles. A vast majority of our students live within four miles of the school. But, even then, the second you leave Clarion Borough or go down River Hill or Miola Hill, it all changes. I can’t imagine what Keystone is like with over 200 miles of mostly rural areas.”
Brookville is facing the same internet issues that other school districts are facing, with a recent district survey finding that at least 10 percent of its students lack dependable internet as do some of the teachers. Therefore, the district is going to use something called “project-based learning,” according to May.
“Projects provide relevance and rigor,” May said. “Projects give students choice and exercise their creativity. Families with students in grades 3 through 11 will receive an instructional menu and be asked to choose two projects. Twelfth graders will be given a senior project.
“Our aim is to distribute all those materials the week of April 6 and have students in a position to start back to work on April 13. That is why we need to know ASAP which two projects your child will accomplish. Once we receive that info from you, we will send you the directions and instructional materials for the chosen projects.”
As of late last week, most schools were not looking to go the same route as Brookville and instead were starting to put together plans to provide “enrichment” or “review” instruction.
“Per PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education) directives, our teaching staff will be providing enrichment and review activities for materials covered prior to the state-mandated closure,” Punxsutawney’s Lesniewski said. “For students who do not have internet access, we will look at creating paper packets. Some of our district, because of its size (over 250 square miles), has very limited internet connectivity.”
Cranberry’s Vonada said his district is able to put out review materials, and that was something the district was working on getting in place during this past week.
“We certainly want to do all we can to get resources and materials to the kids,” Vonada said.
North Clarion’s Young said there was an ongoing discussion within his district as to what it can and cannot do.
“There are a lot of unknowns at this point,” Young said.
According to A-C Valley’s McDeavitt, his district is exploring different options right now and that some of his teachers are already connecting with students with review and enrichment materials.
“If our teachers want to continue online enrichment, we are not telling them they can’t do that,” McDeavitt said. “On our Facebook page, a lot of teachers are doing it just for the fun of it and to keep their face out there. This situation is tough for the kids who are used to coming to school and seeing their teacher and playing with their friends. We are trying to keep them connected to the best of our ability.”
Not knowing how long the shutdown will last is one of the major issues facing school districts.
“We don’t know how long it is going to last,” Cranberry’s Vonada said. “If it (was) going to last to April 9, we (could have done) that. The challenge is, what if the deadline is moved to May 9 or further down the road. We could have a limited time with the kids back in school.”
One thing school districts won’t have to worry about is meeting the Pennsylvania-mandated 180-day instruction requirement on all public and non-public schools.
Wolf has already waived that requirement, and, according to Rep. Oberlander, Senate Bill 751 would eliminate the 180-day instruction requirement and would allow the Secretary of Education to increase the number of allowable flexible instruction days (currently set at five) and waive the timeline regarding those days.
That is a necessity because Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, in a Wednesday, March 25, conference call with reporters, said that the school calendar can’t go past June 30.
“By statute, we can’t extend school past June 30,” Rivera said. “That’s actually when schools fiscally close, then we go into the next year’s fiscal cycle.”
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