State Demographics

  • Schools
    Total Enrollment 1,726,809
  • Total Enrollment
    Schools 2,990
  • Economically Disadvantaged Students
    Economically Disadvantaged Students 44.8%
  • Students with Disabilities
    Students with Disabilities 18.5%
  • English Language Learners
    English Language Learners 3.5%
  • Students attending Urban Schools
    Students Attending Urban Schools 19%
  • Students attending Rural Schools
    Students Attending Rural Schools 27.1%
  • Graduation Rate
    Graduation Rate 86.6%

Data source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Common Core of Data (CCD). Graduation Rate data are from 2016/17; all other data are from 2017/18.

State Story
District Stories

State Story : March 2020 – April 2021

March 2020

School Closures

Dr. Pedro Rivera had served as Pennsylvania's appointed Secretary of Education for over five years when Governor Wolf announced all K-12 schools would close on March 16, 2020. Noe Ortega took his place in Oct 2020 and helped support schools implement their return to school plans.

Initial Decisions and Approach
  • Based decisions on core values of equity and inclusion.
  • Prioritized continuity of education and the health and safety of students and staff.
  • Communicated proactively and frequently, both internally and externally, to guide decision-making and ensure stakeholders were informed.
SEA and LEA Role Delineation
  • The SEA provided guidance to LEAs and allowed them to customize their plans and request resources as needed.
  • The SEA invested in an online platform for districts and families who did not have internet access.
Supportive Partners or Resources
  • Engaged frequently and directly with LEA and Higher Education stakeholders.
  • Also engaged with Intermediate Unit executive directors and leaders from other agencies such as the Departments of Health and Agriculture.
  • Also relied on guidance and resources from CCSSO and other state chiefs.
Pedro Rivera
Pedro Rivera Past Secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Education until Oct 2020
Noe Ortega
Noe Ortega Acting Secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Education since Oct 2020

"When we made our initial decisions, it wasn't just about, ‘How do we provide instruction?’ whether that's face-to-face or a blended model or a virtual, but it's, ‘How do we provide all of those services and the resources that educational institutions provide to our students when they're in session?’ and that's what we started to focus on that first weekend of COVID."

— Pedro Rivera , Past Secretary of Education

"As we move into the re-opening part of the pandemic, a lot of that was the pursuit to go back to normal operations: ‘How can in-person begin to look like what we remember it? How do things look more familiar?’ That's not what schools are stepping into at the moment, and a lot of the work that we're beginning to sort of process is, ‘What of this new environment needs to remain or continue to be developed, and what do we need to go back to?’"

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education

July 2020

School Re-Opening

Re-opening Approach
  • Leaders remained flexible and nimble to respond to shifting scientific information about the virus.
  • Focused on continuity of education and working closely with the Department of Health.
  • Worked on understanding what the “new normal” should look like.

"In two weeks, we realized: ‘Wow, we may not be going back to school for this year’, and that's when we shifted from enrichment to continuity of education. That's when we shifted from just tracking [the virus] to contact tracing and working closely with the Department of Health and looking at the science and the research behind this. So process-wise, how nimble and reflexive we have to be, I think the team is really good in that respect..."

— Pedro Rivera , Past Secretary of Education

What Comes Next

Next Steps
  • Continue to build trusting relationships across the state and nation in the interest of education.
  • Ensure equitable staff, student, and community safety, knowing this will require a great deal of resources.
  • Be better prepared to support the community during any next potential crisis.
  • Advocate for the continued investment in public education.

Every time we've made a decision that's not popular, we always go back to say, ‘At the beginning, we led with the importance of students first, not the enterprise,’ which is a concern that folks have all the time. We led with the fact that these were plans about the health, safety, equitable needs of folks so when we make decisions around distributions of funds, decisions about how we're going to take limited relief funds that are coming our way, people know that that was the umbrella that we put up early on, and we use it to defend a lot of the decisions."

— Noe Ortega , Acting Secretary of Education

August 2020 – December 2020

Re-Opening Plan Implementation

At the start of school in fall 2020, Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said COVID-19 rates were quite varied across Pennsylvania. In early 2021, the rates rose to alarming levels, which required the SEA to reset in-person education parameters and provide more clear guidance on how to safely return to in-person learning.

Status of School Models
  • Grounded on evidence-based guidelines for spacing, local health metrics, and vaccine availability.
  • When metrics improve, in-person learning begins with elementary schools and special populations. As conditions continue to improve, secondary students are brought in.
Cover of the Pennsylvania Department of Education School Re-opening Guide

"When you have a place like the Commonwealth where local control has been the primary premise that underlines everything we do, it's always been a decision at the local level. [At the SEA,] we’ve always been only ‘recommending,’ which made it that much more difficult to win individuals over. As we moved through to now, we're in a position where we need to be more a bit more prescriptive on things like what a learning model [during a pandemic] means."

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education


"We reached out to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Education Laboratory to do research for us and they came back with some really useful information about how to put parameters on safe in-person instruction. Their recommendations were, if you cannot resolve the social distancing problem, you can get there through a proxy, which was to go down to 40 percent capacity on any given day to create a safer environment"

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education
A multi-ethnic group of kindergarten or first grade students and their teacher in the classroom, sitting together in a circle on the floor.

"For us, one of the windfalls is that we work closely with post-secondary and K through 12 because of the way the education agency is structured. Because post-secondary schools had to figure out how to invite students back to campus; we were already having those discussions. So, we took the same post-secondary conversation into the K-12 space and began to think more intentionally about working through levels of transmission change, and that was really beneficial."

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education

January 2021

Recover and Rebuild

Recovering and rebuilding in Pennsylvania meant gradually bringing more students back for in-person instruction, which was accelerated through increased availability of the vaccine, as well as preparing to leverage Federal funding and technical assistance to ensure students would have equitable access to instructional opportunities.

Priorities (January 2021)
  • Continue making decisions through cross-agency hubs.
  • Provide clear guidelines on learning models to assist with local decisionmaking.

Recover and Rebuild Section Two

"We felt very comfortable engaging Intermediary Units (IU) s in conversations and they were very comfortable engaging in that partnership. I think that’s what yielded so many benefits coming into the pandemic. They felt like the proximity between them and the education agency has been really minimized and they like being able to troubleshoot in real-time. It's saving us a tremendous amount of bandwidth and time by engaging them more effectively."

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education
Collaborating with LEAs
  • PA’s 29 Intermediary Units (IU) served as regional educational service agencies that support over 500 public school districts and 2,400 non-public schools.
  • IUs helped connect SEA and LEA leaders to create trust, efficiency, and quick action.
  • Secretary Ortega asserts that IUs have created a lasting structure to address regional problems.

Recover and Rebuild Section Three

"People thought a lack of devices and the pivot to remote learning was the main issue with access to instruction, which I think is true when you think about the pandemic. But this is based on the assumption that face-to-face in-person learning was already benefitting everybody equally, and it was not. So, in some ways, we're not resolving the problem of equitable instruction for everybody by simply sending them back."

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education
Instructional Accessibility
  • Provided devices to students through unused assessment funds.
  • Created non-digital instructional resources for those without a device or broadband.
  • Acknowledged that instructional inequities existed prior to the pandemic.

Recover and Rebuild Section Four

"In Pennsylvania, anything that would be used as to set aside, or even administrative funds that would go directly to the department have to be appropriated for their usage. So, if we wanted to do anything—for example, invest in learning loss and other things—we would have to do it by going through a legislative negotiation process. Otherwise, the other option we would have is to just funnel all the funds directly to the schools, which is not a bad option, but it would take away the opportunity to sort of invest in areas that have critical need."

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education
Investing Relief Funds
  • Pennsylvania set aside and administrative funds must go through legislature.
  • Secretary Ortega is focusing on needs not covered by existing funding.
  • Post-secondary needs are factored into the entire budget process.

April 2021

Planning for Summer and Next Year

Making Decisions
  • Engaging stakeholders to identify needs.
  • Framing the ARP discussion around equity.
  • Examining and understanding what did and did not work to move forward.

"I think from a leadership perspective, it is very important for us to be able to offer guiding principles for that particular work [investing recovery funds]. So reemphasizing the focus on equity…and really being able to get folks to think about how we’re going to be innovative about rethink our approach to instruction and all the things that make up what many see as accelerated learning. We want to make sure that people don’t lose sight of the fact that in-person instruction is important, but so does trying to figure out who did well during the pandemic and how we can unpack remote learning or virtual learning in the public school space."

— Noe Ortega , Secretary of Education

Planning for Summer and Next Year Two