The challenges of starting the school year during the COVID-19 pandemic

Part 1 of a new series: 'Live and Learn: Education in a COVID-19 World'

Mike De Nardo
October 06, 2020 - 7:00 am

    PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The coronavirus pandemic has altered life in many ways for most of us, including the way students are learning. Over the next few weeks, KYW Newsradio is taking a look at the impact of COVID-19 on education.

    But first: a look back the beginning of the planning process. How did we get here?

    In Philadelphia, after a series of town halls and online polls, Superintendent William Hite in July presented a hybrid plan backed by the city's Department of Public Health: Most students would report to their school buildings two days a week, to allow for social distancing, and work from home the rest of the time.

    Suburban school districts drew up similar initial plans. And while Pennsylvania’s Department of Education kept things intentionally vague to allow districts more control, West Chester Area School District Superintendent Jim Scanlon said directives such as "desks should be 6 feet apart where feasible" made life difficult.

    "School communities have been trying to discern the meanings of these guidelines, and the discussions are literally fracturing our communities," he said.

    A week after the School District of Philadelphia unveiled its plan, more than 100 speakers at a school board meeting excoriated it as unsafe.

    Among them was teacher Derrick Houck.

    "You’re really out here telling kids that, if you love your teachers, you’ve got to risk your life to go to your home school," Houck said.

    The Philadelphia teachers' union feared inadequate ventilation in school buildings. Hite then pivoted to an all-virtual start until at least mid-November.

    And with case counts climbing across the southern United States, many districts outside the city also scuttled in-person learning and shifted to all-virtual models.

    Since then, many of those districts have shifted back — or are getting ready to shift back — to in-person instruction. And while there have been some COVID-19 cases in schools, safety precautions have, for the most part, worked and limited spread.

    In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy's "Plan A" required districts to offer some in-person instruction, but later allowed schools to go all-virtual if they couldn’t meet the state’s health and safety protocols. So Murphy largely left the decision to individual school districts.

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