CLARION - Why can't local public school districts keep the school year on track through the COVID-19 emergency by simply moving classes online?
Because nothing, it seems, involving the state Department of Education is simple.
"Any district attempting to offer continuity of instruction (educational services) for K-12 students through an online, self-directed program during the mandated closure must ensure that IDEA FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) is being provided to students with disabilities," Keystone School District Superintendent Shawn Algoe said in response to an inquiry from the CLARION NEWS.
At this time, still early in the state-mandated shut-down of public schools, most school districts are not attempting to provide educational services through online instruction.
"The provision of FAPE includes special education and related services identified in the student's Individual Education Plan," Algoe explained in an email exchange. "Our school community does not have the required technology infrastructure (high speed Internet access, adequate number of devices for home use) to ensure equal access for all general and special education students."
Algoe said and other local superintendents have posted on websites comments that the U.S. Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Education are considering multiple waivers and regulatory requirements that could potentially provide some additional direction as it relates to continuing educational opportunities.
"There are various issues to consider when preparing for at-home, self-directed education and we are working through those details as they are made available," Algoe said. "Most students are concerned about finishing coursework for credit and graduating on time (or close to on time), especially if the school closure extends beyond the 10-day moratorium on operations.
"We have confidence there will be a path forward through this unprecedented situation. We will continue communicating new information out as it becomes available."
Algoe noted he also had other concerns about attempting online, at-home education plans.
"We have many nurses and healthcare professionals in our district," said Algoe, noting those professionals are likely to become very busy at work. "That must also be a consideration -- are parents actually available to conduct and support lessons, especially for our youngest and most vulnerable children?"
Caught by surprise
The COVID-19 emergency escalated quickly and school districts didn't have much notice of the pending shutdown and were somewhat led to believe they would have more say in the decision.
Gov. Tom Wolf March 12 shut down the schools in Montgomery County.
On the morning of Friday, March 13, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera conducted a conference call with school district superintendents from across the state and after discussing possible scenarios, district superintendents believed any closures were up to them.
School districts were told there would be no relief from the mandated 180-day school year.
Superintendents and administrators across the state considered each of their own unique situations and possible options and started to develop their own individual plan.
But just a few hours later in the late afternoon and without warning, Wolf ordered all public schools to close immediately for the next two weeks.
There was no time to develop a plan for the extended lay-off. In fact, some students had already gone home with letters stating school would be in session the following Monday.
Students were ordered to stay home with no advance notice for teachers to prepare home lessons.
What about lunch?
Providing meals for students who might not have access to a nutritional lunch is no simple task either.
Some districts were able to start a "grab and go" breakfast and lunch program. Others needed to submit applications to do so.
Still others faced restrictions because they do not meet threshold of having 51 percent of their students qualifying for free and/or reduced price lunches.
"The USDA required school districts to submit a waiver request that allowed the National School Lunch Program to operate outside of regulatory requirements," Algoe said of Keystone's effort to provide the meals.
Keystone School District was able to begin a drive-through, curb-side meal distribution program March 20 at Keystone Elementary School.
"Furthermore, the waiver allows for all children, ages 18 and under, to benefit from the non-congregate free meal service," noted Algoe. "Because the National School Lunch Program is a federally-sponsored meal service, they provide strict oversight for cafeteria operations.
"The waiver approval was required for public schools wishing to allow schools closed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) to run this essential program.
"We are still mandated to follow USDA requirements and to maintain menus and meal count documentation per program regulations."
Keystone School District is offering free breakfast and lunch to all children under 18 years of age during the mandatory school closure due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Starting Friday, March 20, all caregivers and families may drive-through and pick-up pre-packaged meals for their children.
Meal service will be offered from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays at Keystone Elementary School located at 451 Huston Avenue, Knox during the closure.
Meals will be given to children 18 years and under who are present in the vehicle per USDA mandate.
Lunches will include sandwiches, fresh vegetables, fruit and milk. Cereal and other assorted breakfast items along with a fruit, juice and milk will be provided for breakfast.
No substitutions or special requests will be permitted. All meals will meet or exceed the USDA requirements.
The following rules shall apply to this service:
4No congregating at the location is permitted
4No access to the school building or restrooms will be provided (no exceptions)
4Follow appropriate parking lot signage and comply with traffic rules and regulations
For questions regarding this service please contact the Keystone food service department at (814) 797-1251, ext. 1127 or email email@example.com.
Clarion Area meals
The Clarion Area School District has indicated due to the Coronavirus having forced school closures, meal pick-ups for children 18 years old and under will continue daily from 11 a.m. Monday through Friday until March 27.
In the event school is closed longer than two weeks, meals will continue to be provided.