What will Pa. schools look like next fall? Education officials answer questions about vaccines, masks and more

Mask wearing. Sanitizing. Social distancing. Avoiding close contact. Quarantining. School closures. Remote or virtual learning days. Hybrid schedules.

Not exactly the words used to describe what happens in most school years but the 2020-21 school year was anything but typical.

There were a lot of lessons learned, a lot of learning on the fly and wisdom gained about the capabilities of schools and educating in the 21st century this year, lessons that will not go to waste in the years to come.

Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega spoke with PennLive last week about what this year has taught them and the next school year, including topics such as COVID-19 vaccines, face-to-face education and wearing masks.

Ortega was joined by Deputy Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Matt Stem and Sherri Smith, assistant to Stem.

With a COVID-19 vaccine receiving emergency authorization for children as young as 12, will the state require public school students to be vaccinated when school reopens in the fall?

The state Department of Education does not intend to issue a requirement for student vaccinations just as it didn’t require educators to receive a vaccination, Ortega said.

However, Smith added, “We encourage as many people to be vaccinated as possible because it does provide for a safer environment for our students and for staff for the start of the new school year. But those decisions have really been at the local level and not something that we’ve stepped into at the state level.”

Does the department expect students to return to five-day-a-week in-person instruction next year?

“That’s been the direction that we’ve been taking since December with regards to getting back to in-person,” Ortega said. “The ideal here would be five days a week. However, I do want to point out and one of the things that’s we’ve been very specific about in all the press conferences and conversations is that largely this remains a decision that’s left at the local level.”

No statewide school shutdown on the horizon in Pa.

Pa.’s Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said the ideal is for Pennsylvania schools to return to operating five days a week in-person in the 2021-22 school year.
Dec. 11, 2020
File/Screenshot from Zoom call

There also needs to be a recognition that some parents may not feel it is safe for their child to be back in school full-time, Smith said.

“We do anticipate there will be some families that will continue to want some level of virtual instruction for their students next year as well,” she said. “For school districts as they receive requests from families, they should work closely with their families to do what’s in the best interest of students, knowing that families are going to be having different kinds of feelings about sending their students back next year.”

So while it is a local decision, she said the state is “bringing flexibility for them to be able to provide remote instruction even on an individual basis if that is what districts would like to do.”

Will students be required to wear masks next year?

It depends on whether the state meets the threshold Gov. Tom Wolf has established for lifting the mask mandate, Ortega said. Wolf has said he wants 70% of Pennsylvania adults to be fully vaccinated before he removes that order.

Once the state reaches that level, Ortega said then they would go back and rethink the face covering order for schools. For the remainder of this school year, he said that order stands since the majority of students are not fully vaccinated. The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is only approved for those 12 years old and up (the other vaccines have only been cleared for those 18 and older).

“As we look at the next year, there are some unknowns,” Stem said. “We’re going to have to look and see where vaccination rates are at and certainly much of this has been tied to that moving forward. So you know we’ll have to see what the conditions are as we get closer to next school year.”

What is the department doing to help schools with overcoming student learning loss from this past year?

“We’re putting a lot of guidance and processes and systems in place to help our schools moving into next year based on learning gaps and social and emotional learning,” Smith said. “We have a new project that we’ve put up on Accelerated Learning. It’s a toolkit that addresses systems and processes for planning for school next year to address all the concerns that we have.”

Beyond that, she said the department will be coming out with recommendations of projects to address learning loss and social emotional learning, with some of the $2.2 billion in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds the state will receive.

“We’re developing out processes for local assessment data to be used to help our [public schools] in making decisions on what are the gaps of learning that students need to do,” Smith said. “So not only are we gathering the research, we’re reflecting on our research and we’re developing guidance and processes in place to help support our schools as they move into next year.”

Additionally, the department is participating in a study through the Institute of Education Sciences to look at the pandemic’s impact on student learning as well as on early childhood, students’ social and emotional well-being and the educator pipeline. Stem said that research will be used to inform future policy and legislation.

COVID-19 impacts on schools

Pennsylvania’s Deputy Education Secretary Matt Stem and Stem’s assistant Sherri Smith discuss helping students recover from learning loss and the silver linings for education that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Feb. 23, 2021
File/Screenshot from Pa. House website

Speaking of the educator pipeline, how concerned are you about teacher shortages in the upcoming school year?

The teacher shortage is one of the issues department officials said they are most concerned about as the new school year approaches.

They hope to expand through additional federal funds, the department’s Office of Higher Education’s teacher and principal residency program. Through a collaborative process between K-12 schools and higher education institutions, department officials say promising students and individuals are recruited and supported through a certification program, inclusive of a one-year residency component, to help fill those vacancies.

Is the department advocating summer school programs to help students address learning gaps and are you hearing of any creative ideas districts are planning for that?

“Certainly summer programming is one of the many different strategies that schools can use to address the learning gaps and/or concerns for students,” Smith said. Others could be after-school programs, extended day-programs and tutoring.

Schools and districts can use the federal emergency relief dollars coming their way to pay for them. The federal government requires 20% of that money go toward addressing learning loss.

“I’m sure there’s lots of creative ways that they’re doing them out there and having camps and such for that,” Smith said. “It’s been a really difficult year for families and for students and for schools as well and so engaging in extra activities this year, I’m sure there’s many that are stepping into that.”

She said intermediate units are helping to support that work, but it is up to each public school or school district’s discretion as far as summer learning programs.

However, Smith added those who do have summer programs or extended year programs will likely be targeting students with disabilities, who were among the ones whose education was most harmed by the learning disruptions of this past year.

What would you say to school districts who are thinking of holding back on implementing extra programs to address learning loss out of fear parents will expect them to be offered in future years?

As a former superintendent, Smith said any time a new program is put in place, you have to think about expectations you may be creating for the future.

But in this case, she said, “We have to set that aside right now. You know what we need to be concerned with is for our students and them regaining anything that they’ve not been able to obtain over the last year and a half with the mitigation of the COVID. So you know whether or not expectations are for the future, I think we have to think about the here and now and assisting our students to move forward.”

Does the state have a handle on how equipped K-12 schools are with technology and the ability to do remote or virtual instruction?

That was a concern last year about this school year, Smith said. Since then, schools have gained momentum but it remains a concern.

“But we have this amazing program that we’ve been working with with PBS and our TV stations and through our public libraries to be able to do alternatives to broadband,” she said. Using this data-casting approach, “we’re able to bring content into the homes of those students that don’t have opportunities because they live in a very remote area of the state for broadband.

“So we’re continuing that work. It’s one of the things that we’re recommending we continue to work over the next few years to expand that to more families and more areas across the commonwealth. So we’re going to continue to get better. There’s still areas, lots of areas for improvement. But again, I think we’re in a much better situation than we were at the start of last year.”

Now that we’re 15 months into the pandemic, what are the silver linings you see arising out of it?

Ortega said he noticed how higher education adapted to remote learning during the pandemic. That should be helpful in working toward the state’s attainment goal of having 60 percent of its adult population holding a postsecondary degree or industry-recognized credential by 2025, he said.

“Access gets improved when folks have other opportunities particularly your non-traditional learners who are trying to balance both life, career and continuing their education,” Ortega said. “There’s a path here that we need to look at more consistently when you consider more seriously with regard to how that can work in terms of expanding opportunity for access for a number of folks.”

Stem said he saw an increase in collaborations and relationships between schools, business and industry, higher education and nonprofits to meet specific student needs that didn’t exist before the pandemic. Business and industry donated technology. Nonprofits helped with food delivery.

“We think one of the silver linings to a very tough year for schools is the relationships that they’ve built and the synergy they’ve created that’s going to help them better serve their students moving forward,” he said.

Another one he shared lies in the skills teachers have developed to teach in a remote or virtual environment. Stem said, “They’ve sort of expanded their toolset if you will and it’s only going to make them stronger in serving their kids moving forward.”

Smith said educators learned a lot more about integrating technology and virtual learning into their classrooms to more effectively deliver instruction in a way students want to learn these days.

“So we all know we live in a technology era and students are tied into it so developing and adding those and putting those into the classrooms as we move back to classroom instruction is only going to empower the instruction that we have for students,” she said. “So I see it as an opportunity to just make us better at what we’re doing in education.”

Did the relationship between school districts and cyber charter schools improve as districts moved into the virtual learning lane?

“I think we’ve got some room to continue to improve in there,” Smith said. “I think one of the factors that separates a total collaborative environment is the funding. The funding concerns on both sides and so you know hopefully we can mitigate some of these moving forward and then become just a different way of educating students and be more collaborative.”

While some improvement was noticed, she said, “There’s a ways to go yet to ensure that we are seen as one big public school entity instead of separate sectors.”

Jan Murphy may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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