HARRISBURG – While Pennsylvania schools aren’t due to reopen to students until April 8 at the earliest, state officials are urging local schools to offer as much online learning as they can, as soon as possible, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said.

“We are strongly encouraging schools not to wait” to resume teaching students until the state lifts the school closing order, he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday announced that schools statewide will reopen no sooner than the week of April 6. Under the state’s current plan, teachers will return on April 7 and students will resume classes on April 9. Schools have been closed since March 16.

Whether that happens or not depends on whether the coronavirus outbreak improves by then, Rivera said.

Wolf has already issued an executive order waiving the requirement that schools be in session 180 days, Rivera said. And state law bars schools from remaining in session beyond June 30, the end of the fiscal year, Rivera said.

The state Department of Education is leaning on the network of 29 intermediate units to help local school districts determine how they can adjust to provide online learning. That would include determining what kind of online access problems families might have and developing strategies to overcome them, he said,

Rivera said he didn’t immediately have data on the number or percentage of students statewide who lack Internet access. The IUs do surveys to measure Internet access in local schools, he said.

Rivera said that that if possible, education officials would like schools to resume formal “planned instruction” online as much as possible.

Some school officials have expressed concern about how they can meet requirements about serving special education students while offering coursework online, state officials acknowledged.

But both the federal and state education departments have given guidance suggesting that local schools shouldn’t refuse to begin offering online courses out of concerns about failing to satisfy requirements for serving special education students, said Matt Stem, Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education in the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“School districts should not hold back from the continuity of education” as long as they are making a “reasonable and appropriate efforts in good faith” to accommodate special needs students, Stem said.

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