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HARRISBURG, PA (April 19, 2021) – During a legislative hearing today on education reform, PSEA Vice President Aaron Chapin offered research-driven, commonsense policy ideas to improve public education in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“The truth is that the stakes have never been higher,” Chapin testified before the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee. “This pandemic has caused an unprecedented interruption in learning and an unprecedented strain on the social, emotional, mental, and physical health of many students.
“We cannot get this wrong. Now is the time to think about reform as recognizing the impact of poverty on outcomes, providing schools the resources they need, treating teachers as the professionals they are, providing students access to nurses, counselors, and other health professionals, and ensuring our classrooms are filled with learning, not just test preparation.”
During his testimony, Chapin addressed strategies to support accelerated learning and student mental health, as well as the promise of “community schools.” He also outlined policies for tackling the educator shortage and enhancing diversity within the education profession. He concluded with a call to reexamine the state’s Financial Recovery Law, nearly 10 years after its passage, to see what is working and what is not.
Accelerated Learning and Mental Health
Chapin encouraged senators to envision accelerated learning, designed to address learning loss during the pandemic, as a two-year strategy that must focus on the academic, social, and emotional needs of children. In-person learning will be key to bridging the gap, he added.
“Students must be engaged and ready to learn for academic progress to be made – and that is not possible until they are able to stabilize and recover from the hardship and trauma this pandemic has caused,” Chapin said. “Many children have suffered during this pandemic, and schools need to attend to their mental health needs.”
Noting that schools play a major role in providing students with mental health support, he said that too many students lack access to a school counselor or other certified school-based mental health professional.
“Schools must establish a short-term strategy to address mental health needs stemming from the pandemic,” Chapin said. “This could require local collaborations with counties and mental health providers. It could also require schools to use federal resources to employ an adequate complement of school-based mental health professionals on a temporary basis.”
He also said that policymakers should begin thinking now about a long-term strategy to improve student access to direct mental health support in the school setting.
Educator Shortage and Diversity
Pennsylvania is no longer the exporter of teachers it once was, Chapin testified. The number of college students completing Pennsylvania teacher preparation programs between 2013-14 and 2018-19 dropped by 33%. Between 2012-13 and 2019-20, there was a 73% drop in the number of Instructional I certificates issued by the Department of Education.
On top of that, teachers of color make up only 6.3% of Pennsylvania’s educator workforce, while students of color make up 33.5% of the study body. Only five other states have worse student-to-teacher ratios.
Chapin called for a comprehensive set of policies to remove barriers to teacher preparation programs, recruit more diverse candidates, and encourage them to stick with the profession, including:
“A strong, committed, and diverse educator workforce is foundational to achieving educational equity for all children in Pennsylvania,” Chapin said.
Chapin also outlined key elements for implementing and sustaining high-quality community schools in Pennsylvania.
Community schools are public schools that participate in community-based efforts to provide coordinated services such as education and health care through local organizations and public and private partnerships.
Legislation was introduced last session by Sen. Wayne Langerholc to create a pilot program to expand community schools, a bill PSEA strongly supported. Chapin said now is the time for the state to support a far-reaching community schools strategy.
Assessing the Financial Recovery Act
Finally, Chapin called on senators to revisit the nearly-decade-old Financial Recovery Law to determine what is working well and what isn’t.
Specifically, he said greater collaboration between chief recovery officers or receivers and the state Department of Education is needed. He also said a better process should be developed for school districts to exit financial recovery.
An affiliate of the National Education Association, PSEA represents about 178,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers in Pennsylvania.