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Graduation, grade system up in the air

The inevitable became reality Thursday when Gov. Tom Wolf announced public and private schools in Pennsylvania would remain closed for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

While disappointment over the news was evident in the voice of school leaders, Wolf’s announcement won’t impact the online learning initiatives many local school districts have implemented for students.

“We’re getting prepared to move into our next phase of online learning,” Dr. Alan Lonoconus, interim Palmerton Area School District superintendent said.

“For the first few weeks, we wanted to get everything in place and focus on review. The next stage is some new, planned instruction, so we’re very excited about that.”

As students become more accustomed to learning and getting their coursework via online programs, many questions remain about how grading will work for the remainder of the year and how determinations will be made on whether a student will advance to the next grade level in the fall.

During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Rivera said it is “strongly expected” that schools will offer virtual instruction that includes mandatory attendance and graded assignments. He added, however, that he “does not have the authority to mandate continuity of education.”

Making the grade

While the fine print is still being worked out, Lonoconus said, grading would likely look different depending on the grade level.

“Some of it may be a letter grade and some may be pass/fail,” he said.

“I think the state will continually have a little more guidance there. The main thing we want to try and ensure is that our students are getting the information necessary to prepare them for the next grade level and that seniors have what they need for graduation. That’s why starting this next phase of the online instruction is so vital.”

Rivera, during his conference call, said, “No senior should fear being held back due to the pandemic.”

St. Jerome Regional School, in a letter to parents, said the governor’s announcement leaves many questions.

“Many of these questions will not be able to be answered today, but we will update you as we work with the diocese as we move ahead,” Principal Amy Hannis-Miskar said.

“We will continue to move forward with our curriculum and deliver quality instruction to our students and finish the 2019-20 school year per our individual school calendar. We want you to know that all end of year activities, especially events like graduation, are still being discussed and considered.”

Tamaqua Area School District will begin planned instruction Tuesday via an online learning platform.

“I can’t emphasize how critical it is for our students to participate,” Superintendent Ray Kinder said. “If you have a child in elementary or middle schools, the skills being taught are needed for them to be successful next year. If you are a high school student, failure to participate each day can negatively affect your ability to reach future goals.”

Graduation options

As for events like graduation and prom in Tamaqua, Kinder said all options are being considered.

“We have been assessing our abilities to have ceremonies virtually, in parking lots, with limited attendance and/or multiple other possibilities,” he said. “If health guidelines open and we can have these events in late May, we will. If guidelines change in June and children want these experiences, we will support them.”

Northern Lehigh Superintendent Matthew Link said the district is still deciding on what grades will look like for the fourth quarter. Much like Palmerton, he said, it may be letter grades or a combination of letter grades and pass/fail depending on grade level.

“Students will be advanced to the next grade level based on cumulative grades for the year,” Link said. “Challenges and changes resulting from the pandemic will not be held against students in any way.”

Online learning is going very well in the district, Link said, with very high participation rates.

“Our teachers and support staff are doing a phenomenal job as are our students and their families,” he added.

At Lehighton Area School District, Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver said the district would be flexible when it comes to grading during the remainder of the school year.

“We are also looking at some pass/fail options,” Cleaver said.

“We want the students to be engaged and participating, and so far in our rollout of the online program, that has been the case.”

The district has also started looking at options for graduation, with no definitive plans finalized yet.

“This class is historic and they’ve gone through a lot and we want to make sure they are recognized for all of their accomplishments,” Cleaver said.

Cleaning out lockers

Pleasant Valley School District’s new Superintendent Lee Lesisko at the school board meeting Thursday night thanked parents and students for their understanding and patience with the online learning.

He said the district is working on how it will handle wrapping up the school year and cleaning out lockers.

“For senior parents, please stay tuned for information regarding prom and graduation, because we don’t know yet how this is all going to work out,” he said.

The school district’s solicitor Mark Fitzgerald explained that Act 13 came out about eight to 10 days ago and then the governor signed it, but there are still many questions about how the rest of the school year will be handled.

“We are waiting for what we believe to be some additional guidance from the Department of Education,” he said.

“Hopefully, we’ll know next week on those issues.”

Fitzgerald said even solicitors for school districts have questions that the answers have not been given yet.

“That’s why guidance from the state will be vital over the next few weeks,” he said.

Jim Thorpe Area School District’s plan is to grade new instruction numerically, Superintendent John Rushefski said.

“E-learning at JTASD has launched better than expected,” Rushefski said.

“There has been a lot of positive feedback from all stakeholders especially with students and teachers.”

Jim Thorpe expects to announce graduation plans in early May.

Panther Valley Superintendent Dennis Kergick said the district plans to combine both the elements of review and enrichment as well as instructional activities for the remainder of the school year.

“Ultimately, since the students are not in the brick-and-mortar school buildings grading would be difficult due to the fact that feedback is not as quick and easy,” Kergick said.

“We have a combination of online and pencil and paper because of the lack of technology and Internet access in some homes.”

The district is waiting on more guidance from the state before deciding what graduation will look like.

“Some districts are using drive in theaters and some are holding virtual graduation ceremonies,” Kergick said.

“There are still a lot of considerations to navigate. Overall student, staff and parent safety has to be at the forefront of our planning.”

School buses are parked at a depot Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday that schools will remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)