Public schools need clear and consistent direction as they prepare to reopen school buildings, PSEA president testifies

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Public schools need clear and consistent direction as they prepare to reopen school buildings, PSEA president testifies

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HARRISBURG, PA (August 5, 2020) – PSEA President Rich Askey urged state policymakers to provide clear and consistent direction to education leaders as they prepare to reopen school buildings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Testifying before the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, Askey emphasized that educators and support professionals miss their students and want to return to the classroom but can only do so if proper safety procedures are in place to prevent the spread of the virus and address potential infections of students and staff.

“PSEA members are eager to see their students and their colleagues in person,” Askey said. “Their enthusiasm, however, is severely hampered by their valid and serious concerns about the safety and well-being of everyone in school if returning to in-person instruction is done without crucial safeguards in place. That is why we have continued to call upon Gov. Wolf — and now upon you and your colleagues — to provide the education community with consistent and clear direction.”

Read Askey’s full written testimony here.

Askey urged lawmakers to consider six measures to address the health and safety of students, staff, and their families when school buildings reopen:

  1. Students and staff who are able to do so must be required to wear face coverings in all school settings. The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is by requiring everyone to wear a mask.
  2. Personal protective equipment (PPE) must be provided to essential staff. School staff are about to become front-line workers, and they should be provided the equipment necessary to protect themselves.
  3. Robust, regular cleaning of buildings and facilities must be a part of the school day routine. Planning for how to do this efficiently, on a daily, if not more frequent, basis, is essential for the safe reopening of schools for in-person instruction.
  4. Clear and detailed quarantine protocols are needed for students and staff. Some of the health and safety plans approved by school entities do not adequately address how positive cases among staff or students will be addressed.
  5. Notification and contact tracing must occur if a student or employee tests positive.
  6. Schools should not be used as election polling places. It is not wise to have schools physically open as polling stations, potentially allowing thousands of people into school buildings to vote during a pandemic.

Given the expected uncertainty of the school year, Askey also advocated for a waiver from PSSA and Keystone Exam testing in 2021, as well as exams for career and technical education students. These exams were waived earlier this year under Act 13.

“The last thing students and educators should be worried about next year is standardized testing and the impact of those scores, when the traditional educational model has been upended and many students will be playing catch-up,” Askey said.

Askey also outlined the need for protections for school employees including:

  • Ensuring employees can safely quarantine if they test positive for COVID-19, are exposed to the virus, or are caring for a loved one with it;
  • Protecting the jobs of support professionals who serve lunches, drive buses, and work with students as classroom aides;
  • Prohibiting furloughs of professional employees due to moving to online learning; and
  • Providing an extension for continuing education requirements to paraprofessionals.

Askey also emphasized the need for districts to obtain emergency permits for some teachers given the unavailability of certain certification assessments during the pandemic, as well as the need for flexibility with student teacher requirements.

Finally, he outlined the concerns of PSEA’s higher education members, including the need for adequate funding for PPE and sanitization for community colleges providing in-person instruction, paid leave for employees who are forced to quarantine, and furlough protection for staff.

“The realities of this pandemic and its impact on all aspects of our lives have tested each of us to our core,” Askey said. “These extreme circumstances have reminded each of us just how indispensable our public schools are for providing essential connections and supports within every community across the commonwealth.

“In a time of crisis last March, all of you — our duly elected legislators — provided schools with clarity and consistent statewide policy and protections for students, educators, and communities. We urge you to take that action again. PSEA stands ready to assist you with that task — just like we did last spring.”

Askey is a Harrisburg music teacher and the president of PSEA. An affiliate of the National Education Association, PSEA represents about 180,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers in Pennsylvania.