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PA Education Department Encourages Districts To Teach Students During Closure

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera is “strongly encouraging” school districts to find ways to teach students while schools across the state are shut down.

Some have already begun to do so while others, including both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, have resisted because of equity concerns. Districts are worried about meeting the needs of students with disabilities, English language learners, and those who don’t have access to the internet or devices needed for online learning.

Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Matt Stem says he hears those concerns, but that districts should give remote learning their best effort.

“What the department is strongly encouraging districts to do is everything that they can with their availability of resources that’s reasonable and appropriate and applied in good faith,” he said.

Schools are not legally obligated to educate students while schools are closed. But Rivera said Wednesday that districts that don’t attempt to teach students need to think about the long-term implications.

This week a coalition of more than 70 advocacy groups asked Gov. Tom Wolf and Rivera to require districts to provide services to all students. The organizations say extended closures without educational services disproportionately impacts students most at risk.

“We should be providing educational services during this period to prevent regression and other loss of critical skills to mitigate the need for compensatory education services and remedial instruction and support students in making academic progress,” the letter states.

Rivera said the Department of Education is relying on Intermediate Units to relay information and guidance to the more than 500 districts across the state. There are 29 IUs that act as service agencies for their regional districts.

Allegheny County’s IU is helping districts make a plan for online or remote learning and looking for ways to get technology to students without it.

Brian Stamford, a program director for accountability and innovative practices at the AIU3, said some philanthropic foundations have approached the agency about funding the purchase of devices.

“The challenge that we now face is finding devices in stock that we can order and have arrive in a reasonable amount of time to get those in the hands of students,” he said.

Stamford said school leaders are concerned about meeting special education regulations but also abiding by civil rights laws. He said the AIU has relayed the Department of Education’s message to provide reasonable and appropriate education.

“Children deserve and need the academic structural and social components that education provides,” he said.

The Department of Education said it will not penalize schools if they do not reach 180 instructional days because of the statewide closure. Though, Stamford said schools that choose not to do any at-home instruction need to think about the implications.

“They have to think about community concerns related to childcare, employment and related services. They have to think about the optics of it,” he said. “How does it impact students who were slated to graduate?”

Rivera said he doesn’t have an answer about graduation requirements or potential funding to equip students with technology. He said the department is working on those plans.