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Schools closed for academic year

Prom, graduation plans still uncertain

With COVID-19 continuing to spread across the state, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered all schools in the commonwealth to remain closed for the rest of the academic year.

The extended shutdown order, issued by Wolf’s education secretary, affects more than 1.7 million students in public and private K-12 schools. It means children will spend the rest of the year learning remotely. It also wipes out school plays and concerts, sporting events, field trips, proms and everything else that typically happens during the spring.

“While this was a critical step for us to take to protect as many people as possible, it was not an easy decision to make,” Wolf said. “We all know that Pennsylvania’s schools are about more than academics.”

Local schools have been preparing for the possibility of not returning to the classroom this year by implementing remote learning, the reality of school buildings being shuttered presents uncertainty as to how to close out a school year that effectively ended last month.

The Altoona Area School District is sending out third marking period report cards next week and has decided to go to a pass/fail grade for the final marking period of the year.

Paula Foreman, district community relations director, said now that school is officially closed, district leaders will discuss how to handle end of year activities such as prom, graduation and yearbook distribution.

“There have not been any finalized plans, but there have been discussions on what the options are,” she said. “A lot of it will depend on how long the stay-in-place order is extended.”

Hollidaysburg Superintendent Robert Gildea sent a letter to parents saying he is “saddened by the news” that students won’t be returning to school this year.

“I speak on behalf of all district employees — teachers, counselors, food service workers, custodians, para-professionals, secretaries and administrators — when I say that we deeply miss your children and are looking forward to the day when we can all be together again.”

Gildea said that there is still a significant amount of uncertainty about how long the social distancing directive will be in place and the effect it will have on school-related activities such as prom and graduation.

“We have begun working on a plan that will present options for various scenarios,” he said. “We want all of our students, not just the seniors, to return to normalcy and experience many of the end of year activities that make school memorable.”

Foreman said she understands parents want answers and the district wants to do what is best for the students.

“Our hearts go out to the kids who are seniors this year,” she said. “We all want to try to provide them with those things they would have normally had, but how do we do that?”

In a videotaped statement, Wolf lauded parents and caregivers who have “turned kitchens into classrooms,” schools that have continued providing free meals to needy kids and teachers who are adjusting on the fly to a virtual classroom environment.

Wolf first closed schools March 13, initially for two weeks, as the virus continued its march across Pennsylvania. He tacked on another week before closing schools indefinitely, part of a series of progressively tougher measures meant to contain the virus outbreak and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

A state law passed last month mandates that schools provide an education during the pandemic, either by teaching new material or reviewing material that was already taught.

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera told The Associated Press that about half of the state’s 500 school districts have informed his department how they are continuing to educate children during the shutdown.

Individual school districts, meanwhile, will have to decide how they intend to handle commencement, Rivera said, noting some districts are making plans for virtual commencement exercises.

Whether school buildings will be able to reopen for summer programming beyond the end of the academic year also remains up in the air.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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