Bob Martin: Welcome to Imagine America Radio. The topic of today’s episode of Imagine America Radio is designed to give our audience an update on the COVID-19 epidemic and also give our audience a good school reopening process for the many quality career and technical colleges in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Joining us today for this episode of Imagine America Radio is Aaron Shenck. Aaron serves as executive director of PAPSA, the Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators. PAPSA was created in 1967 to represent the interest of Pennsylvania’s growing technical and postsecondary career schools. Imagine America has been working with PAPSA and its many, many member schools for over 20 years. Since its creation in 1967, PAPSA has continued to grow its membership, both on career colleges and associated business members, with both profit and nonprofit schools being members currently—and has also added a very meaningful adult education and training programs for its members.
Aaron, thank you for joining us today.
Aaron Shenck: Thank you for having me!
Bob: May we call you Aaron?
Bob: Thanks. Thanks again. Let’s start today’s program, if you don’t mind, with your explanation of what the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has asked the PAPSA member schools to do to respond to the current COVID-19 epidemic. And then second, when was your state’s stay-at-home order put in place? And what’s the current status of that executive order on the part of your governor.
Aaron: Sure. First, thank you, Bob—thank you, Lee—for having me on today, and thank you to Imagine America for the work you do with schools across the country.
To answer your first question, the stay-at-home order in Pennsylvania—it was originally a phased-in order, where they started closing several counties and businesses in the counties where there is a early level of high cases. And that started on March 23rd, and then it quickly—and I mean quickly, within days—all the business across the commonwealth was essentially shut down. And then within another day or two after that, the full stay-at-home order was in place. And that was in place—originally, it was made on April 1st. And it was just supposed to extend through April 30th initially, and then obviously, as we know, this stayed a little longer than people hoped. And then there’s a couple extensions, and now, we’re starting to process to slowly relift that stay-at-home order in different sections of the commonwealth as well.
It was a very trying time for some schools initially, when these orders initially came out. It wasn’t like, “Hey. It’s March 23rd. You’ve got to close your school down in a week or two.” It was, “March 23rd. You’ve got to close your school down tomorrow. Or by 8:00 p.m. tonight.” Or something very, very quick. And these schools literally got caught somewhat off guard. Some of them had—I can tell you, some of the schools had done some pre-planning ahead of this, kind of just in case we got in different positions. I don’t think anyone thought it was going to get to where it got, but there was some level of pre-planning by some schools early on. But honestly, most of them had to essentially close down their institutions, in most cases overnight.
We had to pivot very quickly. We, obviously, as you know, most of our programs are a hands-on training technical programs. And those are programs that, although some have done online education or remote education in the past, mostly it’s something that’s done hands-on and in person. So they have to pivot very quickly. And so we did—our association—we worked with our department of education and our private licensed school board, which oversees a lot of our institutions. And we immediately got an emergency meeting on the schedule on both our department of ed and the private licensed school board was very good to work with on that and very quickly gave schools a lot of temporary flexibilities that were not already in place legally, and we worked with them to get these schools these temporary authorities to do remote education and some other things in this time. We also have some schools that are licensed through the Department of State in Pennsylvania, and we also work with them as well to get them some temporary flexibilities now. Those are massage—or actually, more cosmetology and barbering programs, and some massage as well. And those programs got flexibilities, but they also got—the state would only do it at a certain number of hours. So they basically did caps on hours. We worked with all those government agencies to get those flexibilities in place pretty quickly.
And then the other thing is that we also had to work with schools immediately to look at different platforms. Some were true online platforms that you’d really consider online education. Sometimes it might have just been a Zoom meeting, emails, phone calls, but schools had to find a way to deliver remote instruction very quickly and they used many different platforms. So it was a learning process but it was done very quickly by many schools.
Lee Doubleday: Okay. Now this is Lee Doubleday. I’m talking to Aaron Shenck, the executive director of PAPSA. Okay Aaron, now the purpose of this episode is to inform our listeners of the reopening process. Now I’m assuming that this may vary from county to county, but can you explain what the overall reopening strategy is? And is this something that’s going to be broken into stages? Which counties will start first and second, and how will the reopening of classes work in career and technical education institutions?
Aaron: Sure. Well, thank you for the question, Lee. Actually, just by sheer coincidence, the timing of this question is perfect because as of earlier today, this podcast being taped is on June 3rd—I’m not sure of the air date—as of earlier today, June 3rd, a little before noon, the governor released his plan for reopening higher education across the commonwealth.
And I will be honest with you: PAPSA had, I think, a pretty significant role in the development of the plan. We actually—my board of directors did get essentially a virtual meeting with our state secretary of health, who basically—the secretary of health and the governor have been the primary decision makers through the pandemic in Pennsylvania. And we were able to walk her through basically how we thought our schools could reopen safely, walk through health and safety plans, and it was a really positive discussion. In addition to that call, we had a conversation with the governor’s office, department of ed, department of state, many state lawmakers. PAPSA got to testify in front of the state senate on how to reopen higher education in the commonwealth.
We were very active trying to make sure we got schools to open sooner than later. And candidly, after I reviewed what they put out today, a lot of what’s in the plan on the higher ed side is stuff that we’ve been talking about for several weeks. So I was very, very pleased that all the work that our board of directors, our members, and everyone did did not fall on deaf ears with the government of Pennsylvania.
Now in terms of how it’s reopening, I’ll first talk in general in terms of how the state is handling reopening and then I’ll dive a little deeper into higher education specifically. What our state is doing, it basically is a phased approach. They are using the term—I’ve seen different terminology by different states, but ours is using basically a color-coded system, where basically it’s red, yellow, green. So if you’re in a county (and it’s all county based) that’s red, that’s essentially meaning you’re still under the full stay-at-home orders. If you’re a county in yellow, you’re allowed to reopen but under significant conditions and a lot of rules and other things you need to consider. And then once you go green, then that’s kind of like your county is mostly in clear. There’s still some rules and stuff tied to green as well, but that’s essentially the all-clear color for Pennsylvania. As of right now most—I’d say about half of our state, mostly on the western side of the state and the northern side of the state, or northern tier of the state—is in green or will be moved to green by this Friday. The central part of the state I live in is currently in yellow, and I think we’ll be moving to green shortly. And then our southeastern side and eastern side of the state is mostly still in red but is supposed to move to yellow as of this Friday. So there is a lot of progress.
I will also say, in general, our case counts have been going down pretty steadily over the last few weeks. We had about three weeks in a row I think of about 1,200 to 1,300 cases on average a day, and that’s kind of where it peaked and it stayed that level for two, three weeks. And now we’re down to, give or take, depending on the day, somewhere between about, give or take, around 500 a day. So there’s been a pretty good decline in cases, which I think has allowed the commonwealth to really start looking at reopening.
Now, and actually let me add one more thing before I talk about higher education in general. The way they’re looking at the reopening for each county is basically a mathematical formula of looking at your population sizes. It’s 50 people per 100,000 in the population. That’s the kind of number they’re using, and then they’re extrapolating it over how big your county is and then over a 14-day stretch. So it’s a mathematical formula they’re using. And now they will say that it’s not the only thing they’re looking at. They’re looking at that, along with things like testing capacity, population density, deaths. So there’s a number of things they are looking at, but it’s mostly a mathematical formula.
Now as I said earlier, today they announced the higher ed plan specifically. What they announced today is essentially what we’ve been asking for for a couple weeks. And that was to make sure that higher ed was allowed to open in yellow, not just in green, but allowed to open in yellow as long as they had—as long as the institution had a very specific health and safety plan that they could show that they were following all the CDC Department of Health guidelines. And that is essentially exactly what they did today. They released the plan that does say that schools can open in yellow. But if you open in yellow, you have to assure social distancing. You’re limited in the number of group sizes, to less than 25. So there’s a number of restrictions they put in for schools opening in yellow, but they’re all ones that at least our sector can manage pretty easily. Some of the other sectors of higher ed may have more challenges given the differences in the nature of their schools, but our sector can very easily manage under the rules that have been set up for yellow in Pennsylvania. And then once an institution in the area is in green, they’re essentially in full operation for their campus. They’re capped at 250 people at a setting, and they’re still supposed to follow CDC guidelines, but for the most part green: the institutions are then fully open. So, thank you.
Lee: Wow, that’s a lot of really great information. Now let me ask you this. What do you see being the largest challenge that our colleges are going to face regarding, I guess both the pandemic but also their reopening strategy? Is it going to be informing the students of when they’re allowed to come in? I’m assuming now that schools are opening in the yellow, what do you think is the biggest challenge that our schools are going to face with the reopening strategy?
Aaron: Sure, I will answer that. I’ve talked to—I can’t tell you how many different schools the last few weeks, and I don’t know if there’s a single answer for each of them, so I’ll just go through a number of different answers I’ve heard.
Yeah, staying in touch with some of the students is one. That’s certainly one challenge. Obviously, financial impacts—when you basically have to go this long with possibly no students in some cases or a limited number of students, yeah, obviously that has a big financial impact to the schools as well. And that’s probably, I would assume, financial is something that’s probably impacting all of them, at least to some degree. Some maybe more than others.
Other challenges: just getting people comfortable to come back again is a concern. I mean, that could be students or that could be staff. I know some institutions have told me they’ve spoken to their student body and their staff and that they are comfortable. Others, they got some hesitancy. So just gaining that comfortability to come back is certainly an issue.
Dealing with new delivery models. In some cases, they’ve gone very well; some of the institutions said they had mixed results, but you’re dealing with different delivery models right now. Obviously, enrollment is a question mark. Higher ed was already declining in enrollment prior to this, to some degree. And then when you have to essentially close your doors for the most part for two to three months, that doesn’t help. And then during that process, how do you market your school to future students? How do you give students tours to let them see the school if the doors are closed? So there’s things that will make the short-term enrollments of their institutions possibly a challenge.
I’ll get into, maybe later in this conversation, long term, where I do see some positives, but in the short term, enrollment could be an issue. Big things is: liability protections. We’ve been telling all of our schools to make sure they’re consulting with their insurance companies, their attorneys, their compliance officers to make sure that they are fully protected in liability issues, in terms of when they do open their doors again.
Then I got some other specific things that might be school-by-school specific. One thing, which is a big concern and I’m not sure there’s an answer to it yet, is that some of the schools do allied health programs. If the students have to go to into an externship or something to do a hands-on portion outside the school at an actual healthcare facility, a lot of these facilities are not open to the public right now because of COVID. And there’s been some challenges getting students getting externships and getting them into their clinical at a national healthcare facility. Other things, like I had mentioned earlier, cosmetology, barber, massage schools—those schools and their graduates are in programs that are directly hands on. I mean, you can’t do those careers without actually touching a human. So assuring social distancing, that can be done a little more easily at a school—in terms of they can use mannequins and other things instead of a human—but at some point you want your student to hopefully work on a human. And so in the short term and as they get their doors open in, let’s say yellow, they may not be able to do that hands-on touch of a human because they can’t assure social distancing. But then hopefully by green and thereafter, they’ll be able to do that.
A few other just quick things: I’d say some of the challenges that I’ve heard from schools is the CARES Act money the federal government passed. Obviously, they’re very appreciative of that money, but there’s very specific uses for it and they have to be very careful of how they spend the money and well document it so that they don’t find themselves in a compliance matter in the long run.
And other than that, I just say, just in general, through this time working with all the different state federal accreditors—there’s been a lot of different guidance, a lot of different roles by different people and you have to try to line them all up, and that’s not always easy. I give you a pretty detailed list but, obviously, there’s lots of different challenges, and each of those may impact each school a little differently.
Lee: Yeah, yeah. Well, it is a lot of information. And something that I found compelling of what you said was the externships. That’s not something that I had originally thought about, but I can see where that would be a problem, especially for the allied health schools, like you had mentioned. So it seems like there’s a lot.
So, tell me something about PAPSA. What has PAPSA done to help the member schools during this time? Can you just briefly explain to me what you’ve been doing at PAPSA to help Pennsylvania institutions?
Aaron: Yes. First of all, it’s been a very interesting two to three months. I can easily say, even though I’ve been working from my home 99.9% of the time, it’s been one of the busiest two to three months I can recall in my career with the association. So we’ve done a lot.
The first thing I would say is sheer information flow. One of the things we try to focus on is making sure that schools have as much information as possible, both on the virus itself but then also on the various federal, state accreditor guidelines—anything we can give them. We’ve been trying to make sure they have as much information as possible so they can make their own informed decisions on what to do as easily as possible. So, information flow has been a big one. And trust me, the information has been—every day, new stuff was coming out, and so it was a lot of work just to stay on top and then make sure that schools got it.
The second thing I would say, is that—as mentioned a little bit earlier, as we talked about the reopening plan—we did a lot of direct lobbying and advocacy for our schools over the last couple of months. That’s something we do in general, but usually, it’s on different stuff. We had to lobby and advocacy on stuff I never would have imagined I would have to do just a few months ago. And that started with, as soon as the schools closed, working with the various state federal accreditors and everyone to get them the temporary flexibilities they needed to continue some level of remote instruction while the doors were closed. So we did a lot of that on the front end.
Then kind of in the middle part, it was just a lot of things we—some special one-off—certain things that would pop up here and there. We only helped get some of our CDL truck driving schools to open early. Some of the healthcare schools got open early because they were—both healthcare and CDL with logistics were considered essential services at this time, so they needed labor. So we were able to do some things in terms of getting the schools opened earlier for some specific sectors, but then really the bulk of the work, as I mentioned earlier the last few weeks, was getting the rest of the schools reopened. And I can’t tell you how much work that involved and how many different people we had to speak to, and I’m just very pleased as of today. It looked to show to lead to some success.
The other thing we did over the last couple weeks, months, is just answering very individualized questions. And I had countless schools—daily—email, text me, call me, whatever it may be just with individualized questions, so we tried to do our best to answer as many of those as we could. I’ll be honest with you, there were some days we probably didn’t get to answer everyone that came in just because the question flow was so high, but we did try to answer as many as we could. And then one of the things we did do several times because we couldn’t probably answer every single individual question as quickly as we usually do, we did periodically schedule statewide calls several times to go over what we knew, and try to take some Q&A through statewide calls. So, that’s a quick snapshot of what we’ve been up to over the last two, three months.
Lee: Wow, you sound very busy! Sounds like you guys have been doing a lot to help your schools, which is a great thing. So, thank you for that. Okay.
So, Aaron, you work with all kinds of schools all across the state. Do you hear any positive takeaways coming from this pandemic? And, do you believe that schools are going to go back to the way that they were delivering education before, or do you think that they are, moving forward, going to deliver education maybe a little bit differently? What are your takeaways on that, and what are you hearing from schools?
Aaron: Yes. I’ve been hearing from a lot of schools, and again, I’d say my answer probably—different schools, that answer might be a little different to each independent school, but there are some common answers I heard. It may not apply to everyone, but I’d say, I did hear from many institutions who may have never have done remote or online before (and that were purely hands-on) have realized that they can actually do some pieces of their curriculum through some sort of remote instruction. So, I know a number of schools will be looking at their curriculum and kind of look at, “Hey, what can we offer remote, compared to what we must bring a student into the campus to do something hands-on?” So, I do fully anticipate that.
And, that’s important for a lot of reasons. It’s just maybe more efficient in general. But honestly, if you look at our student populations, most of our institutions—they’re not residency schools, they don’t have dormitories. These are, generally, working adults that have families, and lot of times they may not make a decision to go to an institution if they know they got to spend X number of hours each day onsite. And, if the school’s willing to or able to assure them that, hey, whatever the percentage is—50%, 25%, 30%, whatever the percentage—of the program can be done online or remote in some way, and you don’t have to come into campus on these hours . . . Yeah, I think that could open doors for more students to get trained in a number of our programs. So, I do think schools will be looking at that.
At the end of the day, I do not think many of them will transition to 100% remote, or 100% online. There are some programs our schools offer where that’s probably possible, but the majority of them will require some sort of hands-on component moving forward. So, I anticipate probably a lot of schools moving to some sort of hybrid version. And, that hybrid version may look different for each institution, but I do think there’ll be some level of hybrid version moving forward.
Some of the other positives I would say is—as I talked earlier about maybe some potential short-term enrollment issues because of this, I think there’s a lot of possible positive long-term growth. And I say that because our institutions, historically, when the unemployment is high and the economy is down, people need retraining and reskilled. And a lot of times they go back to a short-term training program, like the ones our schools offer, to get that done. So, I see potentially some growth in the sector in the long run, and I think that’s a positive.
And the last thing I’d say: One positive I kind of saw from this is, although our association in general has always one of the, I would say strongest, most collaborative of the states in the country, I’d say they got even more collaborative and possibly even stronger through this. I know a lot of schools were talking with one another. They needed just to kind of pick the brain, or the ear of one of their colleagues from different institution, so there’s a lot of discussion amongst members that I thought grew through this. And, I think a lot of people realized that political advocacy was needed through this, and I think people realized that the association of a group of schools like this is needed to help with political advocacy and to work together to get things done. We’ve even had a few schools that were not members before, that have now joined because they’ve realized that.
So, I see some positives for schools themselves, and I generally, I see some positives through the sector as a whole, through the association moving forward as well.
Bob: Wow. Aaron, you’ve covered a lot. We’re talking to Aaron Shenck, executive director of PAPSA in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We’re talking about COVID-19. Talking about technical and career college reopenings. A lot covered.
Hey, we didn’t ask you in prepping for this, but, Aaron, tell me something. Are there websites or are there any things you could direct people to if they want to go and just get an update? You were talking the different color codes for counties. I mean, are they going to change, probably, on a weekly basis? Do you have any advice on that before we go on?
Aaron: Well, a couple of things. I mean, there’s the general—in going with the ones everyone talks about, like CDC, Department of Health, Department of Education. So there’s all sorts of information on those general public websites. I would say from our side, our association side, I would say probably if you go on our website, there’s a dropdown and a link to what’s called our news. And that’s essentially a daily blog, if a lack of a better term, that we put together that is all categorized by each day, and I think you can archive it back to for whenever. I’m not sure how far back it goes, but I know it goes back pretty far. So you can go through the archive of every day’s information that we’ve sent out to schools. And that deals with stuff that’s COVID-related, not COVID-related. It’s all sorts of stuff for schools. But our website—www.papsa.org—get in there, find the news dropdown, and look for the blog that’s called Daily News.
Bob: Now, if they want to contact—the school people, or may not be members—they want to talk to you or contact you, you want to give us the contact information, email, telephone number—
Bob: —and that sort of thing? Do you mind?
Aaron: Yes, that’s fine. Anyone who wants to contact us, email me directly is the easiest. It is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob: Aaron, we’ve covered a number of topics, but I want to make sure that there isn’t anything else that you wanted to cover before we close this episode of Imagine America Radio. I want to give you this time to do it.
Aaron: Well, thank you. Yeah, I thought we covered a lot.
The one thing I would like to also share for schools to be thinking about, something that we’ve been telling our members, is—one, is we did do this, is we looked at all the various models. And there’s been lots of models have been put out, and some of them right, some of them wrong. But we tried to kind of look and average the models, and most of them showed that, as we’re seeing happening now, is that this is starting to be on the back side of the curve in, at least, Pennsylvania. I can’t speak on every state. And it should be on the tail end of the curve some time mid-June—and so far, those models are holding.
But I want to make sure schools understand that most of the models also predict some level or a round two of this. Now, again, it’s anyone’s guess when and how strong that will be. Most people think it will not be as strong as round one. And most people think it’ll be probably sometime in this fall. Hopefully, it does not ever rear its head again—but if it does, one of the things I’ve been telling the schools is to have a plan in place for the fall and moving forward too, so that should this hit again, that we’re not having to go through what we just had to go through the last two, three months. Work with your state officials. Work with your internal plans at your schools, so that if there is a round two—and knowing that if there is a round two, it may hit timed at the same time as flu season, which could make it even more complicated—that you are prepared to deal with that.
So I just want to make sure schools are planning not just to get through the period they’re in now, but that they’re planning for a potential round two, and we all hope that doesn’t even happen. But please, please think about that.
And I just would finish also saying that at our PAPSA conference, which is going to be held August 6th and 7th in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we are installing some sessions into the conference agenda—both looking back at COVID in terms of what have we learned and then also looking ahead. So that’s something that I just want to make sure your listeners heard as well. So thank you again for your time.
Bob: We want to really thank you for your time. We’ve been doing a lot of these podcasts on COVID-19, and it’s very exciting to hear different organizations like PAPSA taking a major leadership role in helping people to understand what’s going on.
I guess my overall takeaway—number one—is if you’ve got a question about what your school should be doing or what the status of your account is within where you service, you should call Aaron Shenck and you should take advantage of the information that he’s got.
We really want to thank you. We want to thank PAPSA for your leadership and what you’ve done. Also want to thank our audience, which has taken time out of their very busy and often hectic schedule to join us for this edition of Imagine America Radio. On behalf of my colleague, Lee Doubleday, and myself, we hope you’ll be safe, and we look forward to talking to you all again very soon. Thank you and goodbye.
Aaron: Thank you.