Local school districts readying students for remote learning

Uniontown Area School District will employ a combination of online learning and instructional packets to provide new material that will be mandatory for students to complete, with an anticipatory start of early next week.

Several area school districts are putting plans in place to provide educational instruction to students during a state-mandated closure that will last through at least April 6.

Following first-week uncertainty surrounding state and federal guidelines on providing instruction to students, districts in the local four-county area are now developing education continuity plans to administer remote learning in the likelihood of an extended shutdown.

“It will be just like regular school,” said Brownsville Superintendent Dr. Keith Hartbauer of the instruction his district will begin providing to students beginning Monday through a cyber platform and take-home packets.

Students will be required to complete the provided coursework.

“We know it’s not going to be perfect,” Hartbauer said. “But we have a duty as a public education institution to educate, so we’re trying to do that right now.

“Something is better than nothing.”

Hartbauer said many school districts at the outset of the shutdown awaited clearer guidance on education continuity from the state Department of Education (PDE), which finally came late last week.

PDE said schools may, but are not required to, provide instruction during the closure and that intermediate units are ready to provide technical assistance to help schools develop continuity of education plans for all students.

“The state is recommending to provide instruction,” said Dr. Bill Henderson, Frazier superintendent.

“We’re not mandated to provide anything during this shutdown, but I think it’s our duty as educators to provide some sort of instruction to our students and make sure learning is taking place during this unprecedented time.”

According to Dr. Charles Machesky, superintendent of Uniontown Area School District, the state has given school districts the option either to move forward with its curriculum by providing additional instructional material, to provide students with retention and review material or to provide no instruction, which PDE is now frowning upon, he said.

“If you go with option three, you’re pretty much going to school until June 30. We don’t want to waste the students’ time,” said Machesky, noting that Uniontown will employ a combination of online learning and instructional packets to provide new material that will be mandatory for students to complete, with an anticipatory start of early next week.

Machesky said under guidance issued by PDE, the instructional days offered by school districts during the shutdown would be counted towards the districts’ 180-day requirement for the school year.

PDE has said it will not penalize school districts that fail to meet the minimum 180-day requirement as a result of COVID-19 response efforts but that schools are strongly encouraged to plan possible adjustments to their calendars to provide as much instruction as possible during this event.

Last week, state lawmakers announced they would introduce legislation in both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly that would eliminate the 180-day requirement for schools, allow for PDE to increase the number of allowable flexible instruction days, waive several testing and program requirements and protect employee wage loss and school subsidy loss, among other actions.

The choice to offer instruction prior to this week was a concern to many school officials due to the obstacle of providing full access to learning for all students in a remote setting in regard to free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which ensures equal educational opportunities to students with special needs.

Laurel Highlands Superintendent Dr. Jesse Wallace said public schools received additional guidance recently from the U.S. Department of Education to administer FAPE while schools are closed.

“They have said as long as we’re operating in good faith, we can work out the kinks later,” said Wallace. “We want to make sure we are doing the best we can to educate every student in the district.”

Laurel Highlands plans to have a distance learning program operational by Tuesday utilizing Google Classroom at the secondary level and take-home packets, which will be distributed by school buses, at the primary level.

“We’re working remotely with teachers to determine what barriers we will have to overcome to get instruction out by next week,” he said.

One of those barriers is the number of instructional days — likely five — that elementary students are limited to at a time by using packets.

Carmichaels Area School District, as well as its neighbor Jefferson-Morgan School District, has been providing instruction throughout the duration of the shutdown.

Several area districts over the last week have compiled educational resources for students to minimize the disruption in their learning. Carmichaels Superintendent Fred Morecraft, however, believed it paramount to provide educational continuity right off the bat.

Before the shutdown was announced Friday, March 13, his team had already begun planning for the worst. By the following Tuesday, instructional packets were going out to students, and it was business as usual for middle and high school students via Google Classroom.

Both Carmichaels and Jefferson-Morgan have utilized flexible instruction days, which were approved for those districts by the state at the beginning of the school year, to seamlessly continue education.

“Moving into this we felt we needed a plan. We’ll do things and we’ll make adjustments and go from there,” said Morecraft.

One of those adjustments could be deciding how to grade students on the material.

“We’re looking at ways in which we can grade, whether through participation or through pass/fail. There’s lots of options on the table right now,” he said.

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