Rich's Notebook

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Rich's Notebook

Rich's Notebook is a blog intended to update PSEA members on what is on the PSEA President's mind. In each post, you'll read about Rich's priorities, his thoughts on important topics, or inspiring stories of educators going above and beyond. 

November 13, 2020

It’s time for all school districts to follow PA’s pandemic guidelines

Like all of you, I am very concerned about the mounting number of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and what that means for the safety of our schools.

You can watch my video above to hear what we’ve been doing at PSEA in response. You can also read a media statement below that I released earlier this week calling on all Pennsylvania school districts to follow the state’s public health guidelines, including transitioning to remote instruction when community infection rates hit critical levels.

Rest assured that your PSEA leaders have heard your concerns, and we are doing everything we can to lift up your voices and keep you, your students, and your families safe. Thank you for everything that you are doing, and stay tuned for more updates on this situation:

HARRISBURG, PA (Nov. 11, 2020) – As COVID-19 cases mount, PSEA President Rich Askey renewed his call for every school district in Pennsylvania to follow state public health guidelines for school operations, including transitioning to remote learning when community transmission rates reach critical levels.

Each school district is responsible for developing a process for responding to COVID-19 cases at school, based on guidelines provided by the state departments of Health and Education. According to those guidelines, districts in counties with a “substantial” level of community spread (100 or more incidents per 100,000 or a 10 percent or higher positivity rate), should operate with a “full remote learning model.”

“The state departments of Health and Education developed these guidelines based on good science and what the infection rates are in a school’s community,” Askey said. “We must follow these guidelines to the letter. It’s the best way for us to slow the spread of this virus and keep our students, staff, and their families safe.”

At the beginning of the school year, only one county had a “substantial” level of community spread. By the end of October, that number rose to 26 counties. For the week ending Nov. 6, 38 counties had that designation.

“We commend those school districts that are working collaboratively with the state Department of Education to match their instructional models to the guidelines,” Askey said. “Those districts are placing a high priority on the health and safety of students, staff, and their families.”

But, he added, not all districts with “substantial” community spread for at least two weeks or more are following the guidelines calling for a temporary transition to remote learning.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for any school district to disregard the advice of medical professionals and scientists during a pandemic and put the safety of students, staff, and their families at risk,” he said.

“Temporarily pausing in-person instruction and transitioning to remote learning will allow students to remain on track academically without any risk to their health.

“As educators and support professionals, every PSEA member wants to be at school with their students, providing them with the best possible education. Our concern is that in-person instruction in communities with a substantial spread of the virus will put the health and safety of everyone in those school communities at risk. That is why it is so critically important for every district to follow the state guidelines.

“In a remote learning setting, educators and support staff will continue to play important roles. Teachers will continue to teach; school nurses, counselors, and other school specialists will continue to work with students; and education support professionals will continue to provide critical services like cleaning and maintaining buildings and preparing meals for students.

“The health and safety of students, staff, and our families must be our top priority. We call on all school district leaders to follow the state’s guidelines to protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities.”

November 03, 2020

Patience is more important than ever

This has been an election like no other.

No matter who we voted for this year, it’s impossible to ignore the divisive words and images we’ve heard and seen for months. And there is no doubt that many Americans awoke this morning with anxiety about the election’s outcome.

But, as Americans, Pennsylvanians, and PSEA members, we have a responsibility to remind everyone who will listen that we need to have the patience to wait until every vote is counted – and the respect to allow all citizens to cast their votes.

I sent a message to PSEA members reminding all of us that it will likely take a little longer to count those votes this year. That’s because so many of us have voted by mail and because this is the first general election in Pennsylvania where voting by mail is an option.

So, patience is more important than ever.

As PSEA members, we know that our professions are among the most respected in our communities. Whether we believe it or not, it’s absolutely true that our families, friends, students, and patients look to us for guidance.

So, let’s take up that mantle, and meet that responsibility.

Let’s model the kind of behavior that has made our state and nation great for generations. And let’s be our very best selves as we wait for the results of a free and fair election in which every single vote is respected – and counted.

While we hear this a lot, it always, always, bears repeating: For more than two centuries, Americans have fought and died for the right to cast a vote and select the leaders who will represent them.

We should remember those heroic sacrifices today - and in the days to come.

As we do – and as we wait – I want you to know how proud I am to be a PSEA member. And I am so proud to stand with you as we all do what is right and fair in this unprecedented election – have patience as all the votes are counted.

Thank you for everything you do – every day.

October 29, 2020

It’s not too late to vote with a mail-in ballot

Can you tell it’s election season in Pennsylvania?

Both presidential candidates are barnstorming the state. The TV and social media ads are coming fast. National political analysts are obsessed with how we might cast our ballots. And, I’m sure you’ve gotten the endless phone calls, texts, and emails to get out the vote. My phone won’t stop chiming.

The good news is that after all the hype and attention, we will soon have our opportunity to make our voices heard in this unprecedented election.

If you’ve voted already with a mail-in ballot, thank you. If you have received an official mail-in ballot and haven’t yet completed it, you have a few options.

You can bring your unvoted, blank ballot (the whole thing, envelopes and all) to your polling place, turn it in to a poll worker, and vote in person. If you were sent a mail-in ballot but misplaced it, then you can cast a provisional ballot.

Another option is to complete your mail-in ballot (following the directions very closely) and hand deliver it to your county election’s office or to an official drop box location near you. Mail-in ballots must be received no later than 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 – Election Day. So, I wouldn’t recommend mailing any ballots at this point, since they may not arrive in time to be counted. You can find information about where to drop off your ballots at www.votespa.com/Voting-in-PA/pages/drop-box.aspx.

If you have any questions, check out my video at www.psea.org/vote outlining the options you have with a mail-in ballot.

And, of course, if you are planning to vote in person, make sure you get out to the polls on Nov. 3. They are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Pennsylvania. Find your polling place at www.votespa.com/pollingplace.

Before you cast your vote, make sure you take time to learn about the candidates — from president to Congress to the state Legislature — and where they stand on the issues you care about.

PSEA has resources to help you make informed choices. Check out the November issue of Voice in your mailbox or online at www.psea.org/Voice for the facts about the candidates running for president and a spotlight on the PSEA-PACE recommended candidates for the state row offices.

You can also check out www.schoolhouseballot.com to find the candidates for office recommended by your colleagues as champions of public education.

We want you to know what each candidate believes about the issues that impact your schools, your professions, and our union. We want to do everything we can to help you be vote ready.

But, when push comes to shove, it’s really up to you.

Don’t miss this opportunity. Please vote!

September 03, 2020

On Labor Day weekend, we stick together

There’s no doubt that this school year is starting out like no other any of us have ever seen.

Some of you are engaged in entirely online or remote instruction. Others are back to school five days a week with a variety of new safety precautions in place. Still others are teaching students in person half the week and online the other half to maintain social distance in your school buildings.

Many of you feel uncertain and anxious about this school year. All of you are committed to keeping everyone in our schools safe.

It’s been a week, and it’s only Thursday.

Many of you have already welcomed students back to school, some online and others in person. Some of you are putting the finishing touches on your lessons and classrooms — real and virtual — to be ready for students next week.

Wherever you find yourself, I want you to know this: Your colleagues and your union have your back.

At PSEA, we continue to make the case with school district leaders, elected policymakers, and the public that the health and safety of educators, support professionals, students, and their families is our biggest priority as a commonwealth. We need every single school district on the same page, following the reopening guidelines developed by the state’s health experts, so that we can keep everyone safe.

At the local level, your leaders are looking out for you and your students, doing everything they can to make sure school districts are prioritizing your health and safety above everything else.

As we head into this Labor Day weekend, I want to take a moment to say thank you for your dedication and your commitment to your students. You make a tremendous difference in their lives every day, and it is our commitment at PSEA to be there for you in any way we can.

And thank you for looking out for each other. That is what it means to be a part of a union. During these difficult times, I have seen PSEA members offering words of encouragement to each other on social media. I have heard stories of members going above and beyond to help each other out. Even in the darkest times, your kindness and generosity toward each other renews the spirit.

Labor Day is a great opportunity to reflect on the power of working people and the labor movement. Union labor built this country, and you, as educators and PSEA members, are building its tomorrow by educating the children of today.

So, take time to enjoy yourself this weekend. Stay safe and have a great Labor Day. 

August 28

There’s no doubt that this school year is starting out like no other any of us have ever seen.

Some of you are engaged in entirely online or remote instruction. Others are back to school five days a week with a variety of new safety precautions in place. Still others are teaching students in person half the week and online the other half to maintain social distance in your school buildings.

Many of you feel uncertain and anxious about this school year. All of you are committed to keeping everyone in our schools safe.

I want you to know that I have heard you and that your voice matters.

Your words and your advocacy have driven my work and the work of PSEA. Every time I speak to a journalist or a policymaker, a parent or community leader, I tell them that you missed being with your students and couldn’t wait to be back with them to guide their education forward.

I also make it crystal clear that we can only open our school buildings for in-person instruction if it is safe for you, your students, and your families. There is no compromising that.

I wrote an Op-Ed making that point that has appeared in the Bucks County Courier TimesPennLiveErie Times-News, and several other outlets over the past week.

With you behind us, your PSEA leaders spent months encouraging state officials to provide schools with a roadmap to this most unusual school year. And thanks to our work, the state departments of health and education have released guidance for school districts that, among other things, emphasizes:

  • The necessity of wearing face coverings, including masks or face shields, to prevent the spread of the virus;
  • The need for social distancing in our schools;
  • Science-based metrics for determining when it’s safe to hold in-person instruction and when online only or a blended approach is needed; and
  • Procedures informed by health experts for responding to COVID-19 exposures that occur at school.

Now, PSEA is telling every school to follow these rules. They exist to reduce health risks for everyone. Following them will ensure that you and your students stay safe during the school day and that we slow the spread of this terrible virus.

As you settle into this school year like no other, I want to thank you for everything that you are doing for your students and for each other. And I want to let you know that PSEA is fighting for you and speaking out for you at every opportunity.

PSEA is going to do everything possible to make sure that school and state leaders follow good data and the advice of experts because that is what will keep you, your students, and everyone’s families safe.

You are public education’s most important resource. And I’ll never, ever forget that.

Aug. 4 - What we need to do to safely reopen our schools

As communities across Pennsylvania prepare to embark on another school year, the challenges are many, and the answers are few.

School districts are drafting reopening plans that vary widely across the state. That is what local control is all about, but local control shouldn’t come at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff, and their families.

We need clear and consistent standards in place for every school in Pennsylvania to avoid spreading a deadly virus with no cure.

That is the message PSEA took to the Wolf administration last week and to the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee on Monday — and I’ll take it to lawmakers on the House Education Committee this Wednesday.

This pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives — and it continues to remind us just how indispensable our public schools are to our communities. This is one reason why so many Pennsylvanians want to see in-person instruction resume this fall. They understand, as do PSEA members, that students benefit academically, socially, and emotionally by being in school.

PSEA members too are eager to see their students and their colleagues in person. But we’re concerned about a lack of clear, enforceable mandates from the state to make in-person instruction safe.

Last week, PSEA staff met  with senior Wolf administration officials to share PSEA members' concerns and questions about school reopening plans. And this week I am testifying before key legislative committees to make sure that our concerns are addressed by our elected leaders.

We are asking for clear and consistent direction about face coverings, six feet of social distancing, and metrics to guide schools when in-person instruction is safe or fully remote learning is necessary, among other things. Here’s a quick snapshot:

  1. Students and staff who are able to do so must 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. The reality is that our 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.

When this crisis hit last March, our elected leaders came together in a bipartisan fashion to provide schools with clarity and consistent state policy and protections for students, educators, and communities.

We’re doing something else, too. This week, we launched a new ad campaign on digital media, encouraging everyone to wear a mask, stay six feet apart from one another, and wash their hands. These are things that experts have told us reduce the spread of the virus – and they’re things that everyone can do to help. Check out one of our new ads here.

Now, it is up to us once again to raise our voices – in our communities and in the state capitol - to make sure our policymakers do the right thing before the school doors are swung open for the start of a school year like no other. 

July 16 - A letter to Gov Wolf and Secretary Rivera

Yesterday, Gov. Wolf announced some additional restrictions on activities in Pennsylvania because of recent increases in COVID-19 cases. I think this is a prudent step to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but I know that it has raised even more questions about whether schools can safely open for in-person instruction.

Many PSEA members are worried about this. I am, too. That’s why I think it is very important for our schools to plan for the possibility that they may need to open for online instruction only. 

In public education, planning is essential. And our schools need to begin that planning now.

That’s why I sent Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera a letter today, encouraging them to direct schools to start planning for what online-only instruction will look like if we need to go that route.

You can read that letter here and a press release about it here.

PSEA members want to get back to school and see their students in person. But, as much as we know that this is the best way to teach and serve kids, we also know that we can’t put their health and safety – or ours – at risk.

Right now, we don’t know whether schools will be unable to open for in-person instruction. 

But we do know that planning is absolutely essential to ensuring that our students get the best possible education. If we need to educate our students online, our schools need to start planning for that possibility immediately.

Advocating for PSEA members’ health and safety during this pandemic is my top priority. So, I’m going to continue to urge Gov. Wolf and Secretary Rivera to get this planning started, and I will be sure to keep you updated as this develops.

July 13 - School Reopening Plans

As we look ahead to the beginning of the school year, I know that many of us have a lot of questions about what it will look like.

PSEA members want to get back to our schools and students, but there’s no doubt that many of us are concerned about how safe our buildings will be and how we will keep everyone in them healthy.

Reducing these health risks is PSEA’s top priority, and we’re working every day to do everything possible to make sure of it and protect you and your students – from the governor’s office to your schools, classrooms, and worksites.

We are here to stand up for our members and your students. We take that responsibility seriously, and promise to be your strongest advocate. Something else is clear. This situation may change rapidly and often. So, expect to hear from me frequently because I’ll do my very best to keep you updated.

Schools have detailed guidance, and PSEA is monitoring plans closely

PSEA and state associations representing everyone in public education have released a report summarizing key issues that schools need to address. And the state Department of Education has also provided them with some of the most detailed guidance produced by any state in the nation.

To reopen, every school district must adopt a clear plan. The majority of schools haven’t completed their plans yet, and we are working with your local association leadership to influence these plans. 

As always, final decisions about how to reopen schools are made by the schools and school boards themselves. Approaches to reopening will definitely vary. But, if schools reflect on the guidance that they’ve been provided, they can reduce the health risks.

What does a safe reopening plan look like?

PSEA and your local association leaders are monitoring these decision-making processes very closely.  And we’re emphasizing what it looks like to reopen schools in ways that reduce health risks. This includes:

•    Properly sanitizing facilities, 

•    Enforcing social distancing, 

•    Wearing face coverings in common spaces,

•    Working with local leaders, UniServs, and PSEA attorneys to advise members on appropriate ADA accommodations and leave options, and 

•    Preparing guidance on how schools will transition to online learning in case they are forced to close again.

PSEA is fighting for resources to support these reopening plans

A big part of this is the work we’re doing to ensure that schools have the resources they need to pay for the cleaning supplies, face coverings, protective equipment, and staff they need to keep facilities clean, socially distanced, and safe.

We’ve succeeded in securing more than $250 million in state safety grants for these kinds of expenditures, and we’ve been lobbying the federal government for months now to get an additional $175 billion for schools across the nation. That could mean as much as $3 billion for Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools and colleges and universities.

It’s OK to have questions

The work we all have ahead of us won’t be easy. It could be the most challenging thing any of us have confronted in public education. But I have more confidence than ever in you and our 180,000 PSEA colleagues.

It’s OK to have questions, to be a little worried, and to be uncertain about what the future holds. I think we all feel that way. I know I do. If you do, please feel free to contact your local association president or UniServ representative. You can find their contact information at www.psea.org/about-psea/regionsandlocals/

I want you to know that PSEA will be with you every step of the way. We’re going to fight for you, protect you, and speak out for you. That’s what we’re here for.

I’ll be sharing regular updates about this process. And I know we’ll get through this like we always do - together.