Jesse Topper

Jesse Topper

HARRISBURG – School officials statewide feel as prepared for reopening as they can be, but with three weeks before classes resume, there are concerns over unresolved questions about how schools will cope with coronavirus outbreaks once they occur.

Representatives of the state’s major school lobbying organizations spoke about those and other reopening issues in a hearing with state lawmakers Wednesday.

Additional challenges schools face in seeking to reopen highlighted in a hearing before the House education committee included:

• How to determine how many children or staff have to become sick before schools are closed.

• How to determine which teachers should be given special accommodation if they are afraid of becoming sick and schools reopen for in-person classes.

• How to determine whether teachers must use their own sick days if they are forced to quarantine because they’ve been exposed to a colleague or student with COVID-19.

• Whether schools that shift to online-only classes will be exempted from state requirements mandating that they hold 180 days of school each academic year.

The state Department of Health and Department of Education have each produced guidelines for local schools to follow when deciding how to reopen schools. The school health and safety plans must be approved by the local school board, provided to the Department of Education and posted online for public scrutiny before classes resume.

Gov. Tom Wolf last week reiterated that state officials will allow local officials to decide when to close schools.

Guidance provided to schools by the Department of Health says that school closing decisions would be driven by state monitoring of “community transmission rates and other surveillance metrics across the commonwealth, including Pre-K to 12 school specific outbreaks of COVID-19.”

But as the governor said, the Department of Health’s role would be to issue a recommendations rather than order a school district to close, April Hutcheson, a Department of Health spokeswoman said when the state guidance was released.

“As soon as there is one case, parents are going to lose their minds and want answers,” said state Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny.

Bermudian Springs Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss said that local school officials and members of the public would like to know more about the threshold that will be used to help determine when schools will be closed.

Hotchkiss said that if a member of his school staff or a student becomes sick with coronavirus, he doesn’t have any information about what to do other than call the Department of Health and see what they tell him.

“We keep hearing that it’ll be handled on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “I don’t know what that process is other than we’re going to call the Department of Health.”

With many traditional public schools turning to remote-learning for all or some of their students for the coming academic year, at least one lawmaker said schools should be under pressure to provide more adequate education than they did in the spring.

“We can’t go a whole year like the last two months” of the 2019-20 school year, said state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford.

Topper said that with the cyber schools nearing capacity, families will have little choice other than accept the options offered by their local public schools.

“Based on what I saw from last spring, if they are not able to continue to learn and be taught what they need for their level, we’re going to lose an entire year of education for these kids. We’re talking about compounding a public health crisis with more crises on top of it.”

Last year, the state waived the requirement that schools offer 180 days of class due to the shutdown. Topper said he’s not sure that the state should repeat that move if schools shift online, suggesting that it might make more sense to require that schools complete the 180 days even if it means waiting until schools can reopen to start the 180-day calendar.

State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, said that even if students are told to stay away from school, teachers should be leading online classes from their classrooms to provide a sense of “normalcy” to the class experience.

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said that some school districts, including Harrisburg and Hazleton, have announced that they intend to do just that – have teachers lead online classes from their classrooms.

Askey repeated concerns he’d raised before a Senate panel on Monday that the health and safety plans being produced by some school districts don’t have strong enough mask-wearing requirements.

State Rep. MaryLouise Isaacson, D-Philadelphia, asked whether school districts have explained whether they plan to force teachers to use their own sick time if they must go into quarantine due to close contact with a person with coronavirus or they become ill.

That’s an issue that could be of huge consequence, particularly for young teachers who don’t have much sick time banked up and are coming to the job with thousands of dollars in college student loan debt, she said.

Askey said the issue is one that is alarming many teachers, particularly since it would be difficult for a teacher to get worker’s compensation.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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