"We fully expect students to return to classrooms in some capacity," Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera has said.

The coronavirus pandemic has added a flood of questions to the start of the school year, already one of the busiest times of any year for students and parents in Pennsylvania.

As families prepare for what is likely to be an anxiety-filled return to instruction, several issues stand out in the state Department of Education’s guidance for reopening schools.

How many students are affected?

Pennsylvania has 1.7 million public school students, according to state figures for 2019-20. Most of those students attend schools in the state’s 500 public school districts.

The state also has 178 charter and cybercharter schools that enroll 147,000 students.

What about private schools?

Private schools are not required to follow the Department of Education’s guidance, though state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera has said private and parochial schools can use it as a resource as they prepare to reopen.

There were about 3,000 nonpublic or private schools in Pennsylvania in 2019-20.

Is the state requiring a return to in-person instruction?

No. The state is strongly encouraging some type of in-person instruction, but not mandating it.

As Rivera said in announcing preliminary back-to-school guidelines on June 3, “We fully expect students to return to classrooms in some capacity and are confident that schools will use this guidance to build a framework that best meets the unique needs of their students and communities.”

What type of instruction must occur?

School districts must make sure students are engaged in “planned instruction,” in which teachers deliver lessons in an active fashion, either online or in person.

“Planned Instruction,” according to the state Department of Education, “is formal teaching and learning, similar to what occurs in a classroom setting.”

Schools may no longer engage in what is known as enrichment and review, which many schools used during the early stages of the coronavirus-triggered shutdown in the spring. Enrichment and review consists of informal activities in which students go over previous work.

Can the state order schools closed?

Gov. Tom Wolf on March 13 ordered schools closed in a directive that he eventually extended through the end of the 2019-20 academic year. Wolf ordered schools closed then in response to rising COVID-19 cases, and he could do so again.

However, Rivera has been quick to stress that the state, for as long as possible, will let local school districts and other institutions decide if they want stay open for in-person instruction or hold only online instruction, depending on the number of new coronavirus cases in the schools’ areas.

What kind of instruction does the state prefer?

Many school districts are offering a hybrid approach, in which students can attend classes or stay at home and learn online, depending on each family’s circumstances. Students would be able to go to school some days and stay at home on the others.

The hybrid model also allows schools to switch quickly to an online model if a surge in COVID-19 cases prompts a school or school district to close.

Rivera has said a hybrid approach represents the best option for students “given the fact that we are dealing with a novel pandemic,” but he has also stressed that each school district must be free to develop a customized plan that best fits the needs of its students while accounting for severity of the local COVID-19 outbreak.

Why the rush to return students to school at all?

State education and health officials believe that having children attend school, rather than learn online, is the best way for them to be educated. Officials have also highlighted that for many poor children, schools provide the resources for them to eat balanced meals and to get medical care, through nurses, as well as counseling.

"We all agree that being back in school is the best outcome for children, and they gain so much in terms of education," state Health Secretary Rachel Levine, M.D., said on July 16.

A week later, on July 23, she said rising coronavirus cases could jeopardize school reopenings.

What kind of guidance is the state Department of Education providing to school districts? Who helped develop the guidance?

The Department of Education and the Department of Health worked together to develop the guidance for reopening, released July 16. The guidance covers social distancing and other requirements that schools must follow to keep children safe.

The guidance is based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies.

What about special education students?

The state is clear that special education students are entitled to a free and appropriate education during the pandemic. However, if social distancing rules cannot be met in educating a special education student, then the school is to meet with the student’s family to develop an alternative education plan that follows federal and state law.

How can I find my school district’s reopening plan?

School districts and other public school entities must make their plans accessible to the public. They also must submit the plans to the state Department of Education before the start of school.

According to the department, its guidance “requires school districts, charter schools, regional charter schools, cyber charter schools, career and technical centers and intermediate units to develop a health and safety plan.

“The plans must be approved by the school’s governing body and made available on the school’s public website before bringing students and staff back to campus. Nonpublic schools are strongly encouraged to create plans tailored to their unique needs and post them on their websites.”

What about sports?

The state’s guidance allows sports to continue. According to the Department of Education:

“Coaches, athletes, and spectators must wear face coverings unless they are outdoors and can consistently maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet. Athletes are not required to wear face coverings while actively engaged in workouts and competition that prevent the wearing of face coverings, but must wear face coverings when on the sidelines, in the dugout, etc., and anytime 6 feet of social distancing is not possible.”

Contact Ed Palattella at epalattella@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.