The plan for hybrid learning for the Erie School District’s 4,900 elementary school students is finally going into action.
The district on Feb. 1 intends to launch the plan, which will bring the pre-K-5 students back to school for in-person classes one week and online-only classes the next. Families can also choose to keep students in online-only classes.
Online-only classes have been the Erie School District’s mode of instruction for most students so far this school year due to the pandemic.
As part of its state-required health and safety plan, the Erie School District months ago developed the hybrid plan, designed to limit the number of students in a building at one time to curb the spread of COVID-19. But the district has kept the plan on hold as coronavirus cases have risen in Erie County.
At a School Board meeting on Wednesday night, Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito recommended that the hybrid plan start on Feb. 1 based on new state guidelines, issued last week, that encourage hybrid instruction for elementary school students during the pandemic. The Erie School Board consented to the recommendation at the meeting, a monthly nonvoting study session. The district on Thursday morning announced the launch of the plan.
The overall plan still could change if COVID-19 cases rise considerably in Erie County, according to the district. And when the schools reopen for the hybrid plan, the district could still close buildings temporarily for cleaning and other measures if an outbreak hits a school, according to district policy.
None of the nine school directors objected on Wednesday night when Polito recommended starting the hybrid plan in light of the new state guidelines.
“This is what is already in the health and safety plan,” Polito said, referring to the details for hybrid instruction, “so we just wanted to confirm that the board was still comfortable with this and the approach of bringing everybody back on Feb. 1.”
Developing the plan:Erie School District watching COVID-19 rates as it prepares to start hybrid plan
The school directors said that, like Polito, they want students to get back to class following the new guidance and with safety measures, such a social distancing and hand-washing, in place. As an added safeguard, the district said it is looking into buying transparent desk shields to use in elementary school classrooms.
“I support whatever gets the students in the classroom sooner than later,” School Director Tom Spagel said.
“I am in favor of it, as well,” board Vice President Darlene Feeney said. “We need to get our students back in school, and I know that our teachers desperately want to see their students and engage with them in person.”
Middle and high school students in the district will remain online-only for the foreseeable future. But the district on Feb. 1 will restart in-person classes for some special education students, students in career and technical classes, some students learning English as a second language and high school seniors at risk of not graduating on time. The new state guidelines recommend hybrid instruction for those students.
The 11,000-student Erie School District, the region’s largest school district, had planned to implement the hybrid plan for elementary school students in November, once ventilation repairs to the school buildings were done. Rising COVID-19 case counts in Erie County led the school district to shelve the hybrid plan until at least Jan. 29.
Until last week, the state departments of health and education had recommended that school districts use remote-only instruction if the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the districts’ counties remains in the “substantial,” or highest range, as is the case in Erie County and the state’s 66 other counties.
Under the change in policy, the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf a week ago recommended school districts try implementing a hybrid form of instruction — a combination of in-person and remote learning — for elementary school students later this month, even in counties that remain in the substantial range of COVID-19 cases. The recommendation is effective at the start of the second semester, which is Jan. 28 for the Erie School District.
State Health Secretary Rachel Levine, M.D., said last week the state is still recommending fully remote learning for middle and high schools in the substantial level counties. But she said the state is now also allowing K-12 schools to bring back “targeted student populations,” such as students in special education, for in-person instruction, “regardless of what general instructional model they are utilizing.”
“The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge,” Levine said in announcing the updated recommendation that encourages hybrid learning for elementary school students.
“While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting where community spread is present,” Levine said, “recent studies have shown that when mitigation efforts, such as universal masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are followed, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction.”