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State officials push for continued education despite school closures

“We are operating in unprecedented circumstances,” said Pedro Rivera, the state secretary of education Wednesday as he spoke via conference call with members of the media throughout Pennsylvania.

Rivera was joined by Matt Stern, deputy secretary of elementary and secondary education, and Vonda Ramp, state director of the child nutrition program.

The officials emphasized the challenge of offering students continuity of education during the governor’s school closures for the COVID-19 epidemic.

“As an education community, our schools are extremely diverse, geographically and economically,” Rivera said. “The student bodies are different so as we engage in questions and answers … our role at the Department of Education is to set those conditions to allow for a rural school to benefit from the conditions as well as suburban and urban or an affluent community to benefit as well as a lower socio-economic status community.”

Rivera outlined a plan for moving forward, utilizing the resources of the state’s 29 intermediate units as the service provider for continuity of education for however long the closures continue.

“We’re not waiting to see what ultimately happens week-to-week or month-to-month about school closures,” Rivera said.

Because of the diverse resources in the state’s school districts, education plans could take different forms.

“We strongly encourage all districts to provide continuity of education for students. We also recognize that the resources vary from district to district,” Stern said. “So we’re working with the intermediate unit to help districts with their planning and to act as resources that already exist.”

Stern also said the state will use its training network, which he described as “a series of online resources including everything from videos for students … resources for parents on how to work with their children.”

Stern said the networks are also a tool for educators and are free.

“Finally at the state level we’re continuing to work on ways that we can provide additional resources in the days and weeks ahead,” Stern said. “And we believe strongly our role is to stand in the gap to ensure that all students have access to learning during this unprecedented situation.”

Rivera noted that the intermediate units could provide technical support as well as learning modules that could be offered online or as packets for students. He added that the IU’s also have data about the digital divide, detailing the type of access students have to the internet. Some communities don’t have full connectivity, but have access through a mobile device.

“That allows us to provide a different pathway, to share modules in a different way,” Rivera said.

When asked if there are any plans to extend the school year beyond June 30, Rivera stressed that cannot be done under a state statute.

He noted that the minimum day and hour requirements have been suspended, “so this will allow school district to plan and prepare how we close out this year whether it’s in direct face-to-face instruction or whether we have to continue to provide alternative instructional methods,” he said.

One concern with the school closures is the fate of seniors as the time for graduation nears. Rivera addressed that concern.

“What are we going to do if we’re unable to return and we have graduating seniors?” Rivera asked. “How might it impact post-secondary options, not only traditional seniors but those in career technical programs in co-ops?

“We put a full team on it, to really look at federal and state laws and work on a pathway to allow those kids to graduate this year,” Rivera said. “We are going to do whatever we need to do to make sure those students are given the resources they need to graduate and graduate prepped, as well. They are on the top of our agenda.”

The officials also addressed potential funding sources for providing students with resources such as Chromebooks or internet access, that would be needed to provide continuity of education.

According to Rivera, the state’s general assembly has voiced support for providing funds associated with these resources. He added that his department is “working very hard to not transfer the bulk of the costs to districts.”

Ramp reported on the status of the program providing meals to qualifying students during shutdown. She noted that presently there are 1,600 serving sites associated with school meal feeding programs across the state.

“Both schools and community organizations are using really innovative methods to accomplish this by bundling multiple days of meals together, by using mobile buses or what we call mini feeding sites which make it more accessible for the kids, door-to-door delivery and drive-thrus,” Ramp said.

Rivera shared that in addition to being the secretary of education, he is also an educator and a parent.

“I get to feel all the emotions any one of our community members out there can be feeling at this time,” he said. “It’s true, these times are absolutely uncertain. These times are extremely scary. I think as leaders, as parents, as educators, as students, we can feel extremely vulnerable at this time. … I think when we look at our educators, first and foremost, I want to say thank you because teachers have been doing extraordinary things with time and technology and the resources given to them. Everything from videos to checking in and even driving down the streets to visit their students.”

Parents have stepped up and have been teachers for their children at home and have realized the difficulties of teaching. But at the end of the day, the message is “let’s continue to stand together, continue to work together and together we’re going to make it through this,” he added.

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