The decision of the Pennsylvania Department of Education to cancel in-school classes for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year wasn’t unexpected — though the timing was.
“I didn’t see this coming,” Homer-Center Superintendent Curt Whitesel said. “I’m surprised at the announcement being this early.”
He actually expected the announcement not to come until later this month or sometime in May. Still, Whitesel said, it allows Homer-Center to put in place a plan that can take that district through what was the last scheduled day of classes there on June 5.
“Our school buildings are closed for the remainder of the year,” Penns Manor Area Superintendent Daren Johnston said Thursday night at his district school board’s monthly meeting. However, “we are not closing education.”
Indiana Area Superintendent Michael J. Vuckovich reported the decision by Gov. Tom Wolf and state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera in a letter to his district’s families.
“As a result, the Indiana Area School District will continue to provide instruction through the distance learning platform we have already established,” Vuckovich wrote. “This announcement has certainly led to additional questions for us as a district, so we understand that you must have additional questions and concerns as well. We promise to keep the communication lines open as we learn more and make final decisions regarding academics, graduation, prom and other school-based functions and events that are important to us all.”
In comments to The Associated Press, Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokeswoman Annette Stevenson said the state’s decision will “bring great relief to the schools and the school leaders, because what it’ll do is allow them to formulate the long-term plan instead of having this interim plan in place.”
“We were not surprised by the decision but are disappointed for the students and staff,” acting Harmony Area Superintendent Dale Kirsch said. “We had hoped schools would reopen at least for a couple of weeks so face-to-face instruction could occur before the summer recess, and some of the end-of-year activities could take place as close to normal as possible.”
Those year-end activities include commencement exercises for high school seniors.
“We will make sure that at some point this graduating class will have the opportunity to cross the stage,” Johnston said at Penns Manor.
“We are committed to having some sort of ceremony for our seniors,” Whitesel said.
It could be a virtual ceremony, or one outdoors if possible in June or July, at Homer-Center. Either way, Whitesel said, “We are going to do everything in our power to have some sort of ceremony that our students can participate in.”
“As a district, there is no question we miss our students, staff and the normalcy of the school year,” said Dr. Matt Curci, superintendent of Apollo-Ridge schools. “We understand, however, that the health and safety of all has to be the top priority right now, and will do all we can to support that goal. Having a definite timeline now lets us fully engage the plans we have in place, and eliminates a lot of the unknown.”
Classrooms may be empty, but area districts remain busy with other matters, including individualized education programs or IEPs, also provided by ARIN Intermediate Unit 28.
“Some of the districts … contract with ARIN to provide such services for students when they don’t have enough students to offer a specialized service and/or they don’t have the staff with the specialized training that some of our staff have,” IU28 Executive Director James J. Wagner said.
“(Thursday’s) announcement does not change anything for students with IEPs, whether they are served by their home district or in an ARIN K-12 classroom,” Wagner said. “Our districts have been offering service to all students, including those with IEPs, during this unprecedented time and will continue to do so during the rest of their academic years.”
Of course, the service is different than what a IEP student may receive in-person, because the various orders out of Harrisburg do not permit that.
“The services being offered at the current time are temporary and, when school resumes, districts will then provide the services that were being provided prior to the closures,” Wagner said. “When schools reopen for in-person instruction, our local districts will also be reaching out to the parents of students with IEPs for a ‘back-to-school discussion’ with them to review their child’s then-current status.”
“The Marion Center Board of Directors, administration, and entire staff is here to support our community during these troublesome times,” Marion Center Area Superintendent Clint Weimer said. “Marion Center is and will continue (providing) educational opportunities to our students as outlined in our Continuity of Education Plan. We will also continue to provide meal distribution to families every Monday morning.”
“Continuity of Education” is a familiar term in area districts.
“Our plan was built to last, and we are here for your children and you,” Vuckovich wrote to Indiana Area families.
“I think this was the appropriate decision from Gov. Wolf, done by prioritizing students and staff safety throughout the commonwealth,” Purchase Line Superintendent Shawn Ford said in a statement today. “Purchase Line School District will continue to serve meals to our students and educate students through our Continuity of Education plan. My disappointment is for our seniors. We are committed to finding a way to honor our seniors and create those special moments with allowable actions during the pandemic.”
At Penns Manor, Johnston said “enrichment and review” will be the mode, in a district where “we know internet access is not in every home.”
Punxsutawney Area School District started its “Continuity of Education Enrichment/Review Program” on Monday.
“Based on the order from Gov. Wolf and Secretary Rivera we will now start to plan on how we will complete the 2019-20 school year,” Punxs’y Superintendent Dr. Thomas Lesniewski said. “Decisions on items such as graduation will be based on the social distancing regulations that are in place at the start of June.”
Lesniewski said his district will continue to update its school community, including Canoe, Banks and North Mahoning townships in Indiana County, as plans are developed.
Similar comments came from the United School District on the other end of Indiana County.
“Our faculty and staff will continue working, as they have been, diligently during this crisis. These unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures,” United Superintendent Dr. Barbara Parkins said. “Our concerns are always about our students, and our hope is that they stay well, stay safe, stay calm and stay strong. We are all United Lions, and we can face this adversity.”
At Apollo-Ridge, Curci also directed comments toward students in a district that covers Young Township in Indiana County.
“The students have been doing a great job adapting to an unprecedented situation, and we will continue to do all we can to support them as no doubt they are missing their friends and spring activities,” Curci said. “I am so thankful for the efforts of our staff and administration as they have worked so hard to devise distance learning plans for students and our food service team has been amazing in preparing meals for our school community. The parents and members of our community have been tremendous, and their patience, flexibility, and cooperation has been so greatly appreciated. We have a resilient community and a strong A-R Family — it’s a difficult time but no doubt we will get through it together!”
In Indiana, Vuckovich talked of “choosing compassion over compliance,” with consistent and frequent messaging to all stakeholders in his district.
“I want to assure you that the best interest of your child is at the heart of our decision making,” he said. “While it is devastating not to have our students in school, we will continue to provide the love, care, compassion, and support that defines our staff, school, and community. This includes doing all we can to support you, as I realize a great deal of pressure and anxiety has been placed on your families.”