Are Pa. schools ready? School leaders aren’t so sure

Coronavirus

It's acknowledged in the education community that special needs children were left behind at the end of last year

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — It is the question every parent in Pennsylvania is pondering just weeks before school would typically start.

Can my child return to the classroom safely?

“I badly want kids to go back to school,” said Representative Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) with a strong emphasis on the word “badly.”

Kim is a mom, and a state representative, who had a front-row seat in the first of a two-day PA House hearing on reopening schools safely. She heard the many obstacles remaining to return students to in-person schooling.

“All in all, our schools need masks and shields and gloves,” said Donna Westbrooks Martin with Pittsburgh’s Tillotson School.

She added that funding for cleaning supplies is also an issue and so is getting students to adhere to mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines.

It’s acknowledged in the education community that special needs children were left behind at the end of last year. Advocates say that parents have still not gotten any assurances that things will improve this year.

“This is a struggle for all families of special needs students on a good day. Throw in a pandemic and it’s a real crisis,” said Sherri Landis with the ARC of PA. Landis is concerned that schools won’t integrate disabled students with non-disabled students and blame it on social distancing.

“They shouldn’t be placed in the basement next to the boiler,” Landis said of students with disabilities.

As private and parochial schools decide on their individual pandemic protocols, will that entice more students to enroll or, if those schools choose to go entirely online, will registered students decide to flee?

“I think all our schools are on eggshells to see how that’s gonna play out,” said Gary Niels with the PA Association of Independent Schools.

The nursing situation is as fragile as an eggshell, according to Lori Kelley with the PA Association of School Nurses and Practitioners. She notes the law in the state requires one nurse per 1,500 students. It does not require a certified nurse in every building. It should, she says, especially during a pandemic when nurses are tasked with monitoring the health of students and staff.

“Nurses also deal with students with diabetes, students with seizures, students with medications, students who have illnesses or injury other than Covid-19,” Kelley said.

House Republicans insist kids should be in school, in-person this fall. They blame Governor Wolf, not the pandemic, for the widespread uncertainty.

“There seems to be an extreme lack of guidance or firm direction from the governor,” said Jason Gottesman, House GOP spokesman. “You have various schools that are confused as to what they’re supposed to be doing, and left alone to purchase PPE and equipment to keep people safe.”

In a statement, PA Education Department spokesman Eric Levis said decisions about the return to school are best left to locally elected school boards and officials. He added that the Wolf Administration has issued guidance and steered dollars to schools across the state.

The statement continued, “It is not accurate to say the Wolf Administration isn’t meeting with school systems. Last month, Secretary Rivera and Dr. Levine held a virtual meeting with superintendents across the state and the leaders of various school groups. All superintendents and charter school directors were also invited to multiple meetings with Secretary Rivera and other leaders at the Department of Education. “

Representative Kim concedes that online learning to start the school year is probably safest amidst a pandemic.  But she worries about parents’ work schedules and kids left home alone on devices.

“I don’t think the quality is gonna be there,” Kim said of virtual learning. “And I think the teachers know that.”

But Kim prefers to preach, and teach, the power of positive thinking to the legions of exasperated parents out there.

“My mantra, to keep me sane, is: this is just temporary, just temporary. We’re gonna get through this,” Kim said with a smile.

The bottom line: after several hearings in both the House and Senate, it’s clear is that parents and lawmakers have lots of questions. Schools, perhaps through no fault of their own, don’t have nearly enough answers.

And the clock is ticking.

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