When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools closed in March, nobody was ready. No educator had planned for something like this. Most didn’t have the online resources readily available to teach remotely.
However, some schools switched gears faster than others.
“We gave the students a three-day vacation and, by Thursday, we were up and running,” said Phil Puleo, superintendent of the Christian School Association of Greater Harrisburg. “It was a Herculean effort by the teachers and parents.”
After weeks of online schooling, students, parents and educators could finally let out a collective deep breath. They had made it to summer.
It’s August now, but things remain unsettled. The pandemic is still with us, so people are back to holding their breath, wondering what the year is going to look like.
Some schools are returning to in-person classrooms, while others are sticking to online or testing a hybrid of the two. Many have pushed the fall start date back, and most have back-up plan upon back-up plan ready. All are trying to put their best foot forward in a future full of unknowns.
“We are really concerned about our kids’ health,” Puleo said. “But we also are really concerned about their education.”
The Christian School Association of Greater Harrisburg (CSAGH), which includes Harrisburg Christian School and West Shore Christian Academy, plans to bring its students back to its brick-and-mortar buildings in the fall.
“We think we can do this in a reasonable and responsible way,” Puleo said.
The two schools will open on time, on Aug. 18, with daily temperature checks, spaced-out desks, scheduled hand-washing times and regular cleaning.
Puleo explained that the learning environment will be flexible. “Window into the Classroom” is what CSAGH is calling its online instruction program. Students not ready to come back to school for health reasons, among others, can live-stream classes online.
“We are really trying to make sure everyone is comfortable going forward and that the education and community they are used to continues uninterrupted, whether they need to be on or off campus,” Puleo said.
Harrisburg Academy, a private school in Wormleysburg, is taking a similar approach with in-person education and a virtual option. They too will require daily temperature checks, regular sanitation and social distancing. In addition, mask wearing by students will be mandatory.
“We adopted the stiffest rules we could, and I believe we have a safe environment,” Head of School Adrian Allan said.
To Allan, school is more than academics. It includes social and physical elements, among others. That’s why it was so important for him to bring students back.
“I look at this in terms of what’s best for the whole child,” he said. “If you’re going to be a flagship premier school, you’re going to have to go further than other schools.”
But some schools are increasingly finding that not all families are comfortable going back.
While most schools are caught in the changing winds of the pandemic, cyber schools have remained firmly planted, already with a leg up on the situation. They may even be benefitting from the crisis.
“As school districts unveil plans for fall, we expect to see an uptick in enrollment,” said Tim Eller, senior vice president of outreach and government relations at Commonwealth Charter Academy.
Already fully online, the public cyber charter school was largely unscathed by the coronavirus crisis, aside from moving their graduation ceremonies online. Everything else continued without a hitch, Eller said.
For this reason, he believes that cyber-school is the most stable option for students during the pandemic.
“Since everything is done virtually, there will be no disruption to CCA students,” Eller said.
At the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, virtual education continued just like at CCA’s, but, for CEO Brian Hayden, things were hardly normal.
“While our students didn’t change the place they went to school, their family life changed significantly,” Hayden said.
He acknowledged that, for many students, internet access created an issue with multiple family members at home needing access at the same time. In addition, much of the PA Cyber staff consists of parents with young children whose daycares were closed. It was a challenge just to make sure they were able to teach, Hayden said.
“From the teaching perspective, we learned what worked and didn’t work,” he said.
Moving forward, PA Cyber is already seeing higher enrollment inquiries than last year. Whereas these inquires don’t typically come in until late July, the school was witnessing an uptick as early as June.
“I think cyber-school is a great option for those who choose it,” Hayden said.
Capital Area School for the Arts (CASA) has been working on their classroom expansion project to add more room for STEAM and other courses on the third floor of Strawberry Square.
The plan is for the project to be completed by the start of the new school year. This is perfect timing, as it will give students more space to spread out when they return, said Tim Wendling, CEO and principal of CASA.
“Even though there’s so much going on, we are really excited to have our brand new space,” he said.
The public charter school plans to conduct a hybrid model of learning that incorporates rotating days of in-person and virtual classes starting Aug. 31. They have alternate plans prepared in case they decide to move to all in-person or go fully online.
“As we plan, we are being realistic,” Wendling said. “Our main goals are to provide the best instruction and make sure all are safe. With this, everything is unknown, so we are trying not to worry.”
The Harrisburg School District has been trying to do the same. But many of its families are hesitant about sending their students back.
Chief Academic Officer Susan Sneath said that many parents reached out to the district, saying they didn’t want to send their kids back to a brick-and-mortar school.
In response to that, the district created their Harrisburg Virtual Learning Academy (HVLA), which will provide district students with a free cyber option for learning.
“I wouldn’t be in public education if I didn’t think brick-and-mortar was the very best way to educate kids,” Sneath said. “However, my hope and dream for HVLA is that parents in Harrisburg feel that their school district is supporting what they want.”
HVLA is for district students K-12. They will be able to participate in district sports, clubs and events and will graduate as a Harrisburg Cougar.
As far as the district’s plans go for its traditional students, they weren’t finalized as of this writing. An update made in July by Superintendent Chris Celmer suggests there may be a mixture of online and in-person learning. Desks will be spaced six feet apart and, in compliance with the order made by PA Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, masks will be worn inside the buildings. The school is also considering a new bell schedule to reduce the flow of traffic, according to a statement made by Celmer.
The district’s start date has been pushed back to Aug. 31.
Plans for the upcoming school year are fluid and changing, along with the times. Every school, every district and every family is doing its best to balance education and safety. It really is a learning curve.
“It’s going to take a lot for us to get used to,” Puleo said. “It’s scary, it’s unknown, but as a caring community, we are providing for the academic, social and health safety of our students.”
The Christian School Association of Greater Harrisburg is located at 2000 Blue Mountain Parkway, Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.csagh.org.
The Harrisburg Academy is located at 10 Erford Rd., Wormleysburg. For more information, visit https://www.harrisburgacademy.org/.
The Commonwealth Charter Academy Harrisburg Campus is located at 1 Innovation Way, Harrisburg. To learn more, visit www.ccaeducate.me.
The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter school office is located at 652 Midland Avenue, Midland. For more information, visit www.pacyber.org.
The Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School is located at 150 Strawberry Square, Harrisburg. To learn more, visit www.casa-arts.org.
The Harrisburg School District office is located at 1601 State St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.hbgsd.k12.pa.us.