If the COVID-19 crisis produces any positive long-term cultural changes, one is likely to be a greater appreciation for access to education. As public and private schools and universities grapple with how to open safely amid the public health crisis, the roles of schools not only in education but in a functioning economy, socially healthy community life and public health have been cast into sharp relief.
Public schools are of particular concern simply because of the scale of the challenge. Pennsylvania has 500 school districts with 3,287 district schools and 120 charter schools, with nearly 1.8 million students. The districts are highly diverse — from urban to suburban through rural, from rich to poor, from monochromatic through racially and ethnically diverse. Although there are common standards and goals for safety, there inherently is no single approach to prescribe for every district.
And the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has demonstrated that it is an equal opportunity agent.
Each school district, then, is largely on its own in crafting its plan to reopen, based on local conditions. The variables seem infinite — busing capacity, building conditions and capacity, technical capability for online instruction, students’ access to computers and the internet, and on and on.
The Wolf administration, which aggressively controlled the initial COVID-19 response statewide rather than county-to-county, plans to leave school reopening to individual districts.
Local school politics, relations between teachers unions and school boards, and pressures on parents dealing with work and kids are ever-present even in normal times. The crisis exacerbates them.
In that sense communities have their own challenge as this unique school year approaches. The only certainty is that it is not going to be easy for anyone. Whatever problems school boards might haves in normal times, the crisis calls for a commitment not just by districts but by their broader communities to try to make the boards’ decisions work to the degree possible.
As the year progresses, it might be possible for districts to borrow from one another as different approaches prove successful. But at the outset, the only prospect for success is if involved parties begin by rowing in the same direction once final plans are established.