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​June 24, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

On June 3, the Department of Education (PDE) issued Preliminary Guidance for Phased Reopening of Schools to summarize safe operations recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DoH), and to provide a starting point for school leaders to consider in preparations for the upcoming year.

Today, we build on this guidance with a comprehensive research report prepared in partnership with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Mid-Atlantic at Mathematica, one of the nation's foremost social policy research firms.  This report summarizes existing research on COVID-19 and generates a Pennsylvania-specific body of research—both qualitative and quantitative—that can inform decision making around completion of local health and safety plans, preparations for resumption of in-person teaching and learning, and development of supports for student and staff wellness—with attention to equity throughout.  Components include:

  1. Evidence Review: The report begins with a summary of the most recent and rigorous research on COVID-19, early evidence from school reopening internationally, and estimations of educational and other losses from long-term school closures.  Naturally, given the state of the pandemic and the range of reopening approaches attempted internationally, many results are not definitive.  While acknowledging that there are higher risks to adult staff, family, and community members than for students, what does seem clear from examination of more than 80 separate sources is that most children who contract COVID-19 do not experience serious symptoms; that an increasing number of practices demonstrate potential for reducing disease spread among both children and adults; and that the closure of schools in spring 2020 creates a moral imperative to address existing, underlying inequities in our system of public education.

  2. Stakeholder Perspectives: Working alongside my team, REL researchers conducted formal interviews with state government officials, public health experts, leaders of statewide education organizations, administrators from school districts of every size and type, representatives of the charter school community, classroom educators, parents, and other stakeholders.  In recruiting interview participants, we were intentional about involving stakeholders who have been especially proximate to COVID-19 impacts and who represent the racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity of the state's education community.  This qualitative research surfaces important themes in the priorities and concerns of education professionals and provides a basis for evaluating state, local, and school-level reopening efforts over the next several months.

  3. Modeling on Disease Mitigation Strategies: The first two components of our commissioned research informed a third—cutting edge, predictive modeling of COVID-19 disease transmission to anticipate differences in transmission associated with different approaches to re-opening Pennsylvania schools.  This research used publicly reported student and school employee data in an agent-based computational model—which is elsewhere being employed to inform reopening plans for the University of California and the design of future vaccine trials—to test seven re-opening scenarios that are sensitive to school type and grade configuration.  As with all COVID-19 research, there are important assumptions and caveats to keep in mind.  However, the research offers compelling evidence that school officials can make a range of appropriate decisions, aligned with CDC, DoH, and PDE's June 3 guidance, that may substantially reduce relative risk of disease spread compared with conditions in the broader community.  More intensive mitigation efforts may carry additional benefits.

From hundreds of discussions with superintendents, chief charter school administrators, and intermediate unit executive directors, I know there is tremendous hunger for precise guidance on reopening.  While this research does not prescribe a single path to reopening, it does provide a range of acceptable options for consideration by school leaders and communities.  My takeaways are:

  1. All sectors of education—traditional public, public charter, and nonpublic—and state government have a responsibility to work together to address and resolve pupil transportation barriers.  School reopening depends on manageable and safe routines for getting students there in the first place.  If you haven't already, use the days ahead to survey parents and families about their plans to utilize school district transportation services.  Based on these data, work collaboratively with your local charter and nonpublic school leaders to accommodate appropriate, cost-feasible alternatives.  Finally, it is undeniable that providing safe transportation for students will be resource intensive.  Additional state and federal funds will be necessary to address this challenge; please join me in advocating for these investments. 

  2. Local education agencies (LEAs) should be planning to offer at least some in-person education for all students.  While the spring 2020 school closure was a necessary step in the face of the greatest public health crisis of the past century, modeling conducted specifically for Pennsylvania's schools indicates that a combination of mitigation strategies can sharply reduce the risk of disease spread.  Accordingly, I urge all LEAs to plan for at least the following:

    • Anticipating that COVID-19 conditions will change throughout the year, schools should contemplate some reduction in overall student presence each day.  This can be accomplished through any combination of rotating or split schedules (including through use of block scheduling at the secondary level), expanding distance learning, and other appropriate measures.  This principle is especially important for schools with class sizes and facilities that preclude six feet of separation among students and staff throughout the day, and most certainly in counties that are transitioning from green to yellow.
    • All students should wear masks during LEA-managed transportation to and from school; staff and students, and particularly older learners, should be encouraged to wear masks during the school day, especially when moving around the building or in close contact with others.
    • Schools should emphasize evidence-based hygiene practices and undertake regular deep cleaning and sanitation procedures in alignment with CDC and DoH recommendations and PDE's June 3 guidance.
    • Building on Spring 2020 Continuity of Education plans, LEAs should develop and refine contingency plans for providing remote-only instruction in the event schools close on short notice due to a local outbreak.
  1. Schools should focus limited resources on the highest-leverage public health activities.  Especially considering emerging evidence that a sizable proportion of COVID-19 infections are asymptomatic, schools may better safeguard student and public health by quickly intervening with students who have COVID-19-consistent symptoms than by attempting to screen all students daily.  Similarly, I believe that schools are better equipped to support local health departments and emergency coordination agencies in efficiently and sensitively implementing contact tracing as necessary than in mounting such efforts themselves.

In sharing this research with you, I know that many local school reopening plans are already well underway.  If that planning reflects community voice, emphasizes evidence-based practices, and promotes physical distancing, this research should not require you to rework those efforts.  In these cases, I urge you to consider the findings as you engage in longer-term planning around the full range of possibilities across the coming school year—including a shift in county designation from green to yellow or the need to quickly transition to remote-only education.

Relatedly, it must be said that the extraordinary efforts associated with the start of the 2020-21 school year will result in some schools achieving a measure of new normalcy, while others—that work just as hard and prepare just as well—realize more significant direct impacts from COVID-19.  My commitment to every school community is that PDE will continue to monitor the best available public health and education research and use these in developing timely, appropriate guidance.

As a final note, I want to thank the stakeholders who contributed their voices and professional judgment to this work; the incredible team at the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Mid-Atlantic at Mathematica, along with their colleagues at the Institute of Education Sciences, for working tirelessly to make Pennsylvania the first state to have its reopening guidance informed by evidence-based modeling on the spread of COVID-19 in schools; and each of you for leading through these times with such determination, care, and credibility.

Sincerely,

Pedro A. Rivera
Secretary of Education