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Bill to shorten the school year goes to governor

House of Representatives votes remotely for first time in history

By Jan Murphy

jmurphy@pennlive.com

HARRISBURG –Pennsylvania lawmakers have passed emergency legislation that shortens the school year and provides financial guarantees to schools and their employees as part of the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak that led to Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to close schools now for at least three weeks.

The measure is on its way to the governor’s desk for his signature after the House passed it on Wednesday by a 198-0 vote and shortly thereafter, by the Senate on a 50-0 vote.

During a video news conference Wednesday afternoon, Wolf said he will sign the legislation.

On March 13, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to close for two weeks over COVID-19 concerns. On Monday, he extended that closure order until at least through April 6, and said that could be extended longer if it considered necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

With that long of an ordered closing at this time of year, it is becoming difficult for schools to meet the state-mandated 180 instructional day school year. This bill waives that mandate, along with granting waivers that shorten the hours required for a career and technical program, days for preschool instruction; and the 12-week requirement for student teachers.

It allows for expanded use of flexible instructional days, which allow schools to give out school assignments to students to do at home in emergency situations and have it count as a school day. Currently, schools were limited to no more than five flexible instructional days in a school year.

Additionally, it states that any school employee, professional or support staff, employed by a school entity as of March 13 will be paid and earn pension credits the same as they would had schools not closed and the pandemic not occurred. Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford County, who offered the amendment providing for these emergency measures, said it would not apply to employees of firms with which a school district contracts.

It also ensures schools will not lose any state funding and charter schools will receive the same amount they were receiving for the students they enrolled on March 13. It also addresses payments to school bus contractors and private residential rehabilitative institutions.

Among other provisions in the emergency measure, it requires schools to:

–Make a good faith effort to plan to offer continuity of education to students using alternative means while their buildings are closed.

–Provide employees tasked with cleaning school facilities with the proper protective gear and cleaning materials;

–Give notice to parents of students with individualized education programs that the student will be ensured of an appropriate education;

— Waives the minimal instructional time and standardized testing requirement for private schools.

This bill was among several coronavirus response-related legislation that the General Assembly passed on Wednesday using their temporary rule changes that for the first times in both chambers’ history, allowed members to vote remotely to avoid a gathering of more than 10 people to slow the virus’ spread and practice social distancing as is recommended.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, said through his remote connection to the Senate floor that this bill will “serve as a template as we continue to navigate the uncharted waters” created by the coronavirus even though it remains unknown when students will return to school.

“This bill is about the students of this great commonwealth,” he said.

Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, said he supported the bill but voiced concern about the continuity of education for students, saying that continuity is in crisis. He noted in Philadelphia, about half of the students do not have access to online learning. The same goes for students in rural parts of the commonwealth.

“The Legislature, the Department of Education and each and every one of us as senators need to assist our local districts so we can bring about the continuity of education,” Dinniman said.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association applauded the bill’s passage, saying it is “grateful that lawmakers and the governor have provided this clear policy guidance to educators during this unprecedented emergency,” said the union’s spokesman Chris Lilienthal.

“Teachers across Pennsylvania are doing their best to provide instruction and enrichment to their students while support staff are cleaning and maintaining school buildings, preparing for new kinds of instruction, and making sure students get breakfast and lunch every day. This bill will help educators and support staff do their jobs and keep kids safe and engaged in learning.”

The emergency provisions were attached to a Senate-passed school bill that was noteworthy in its own right.

It calls for changes in the way teachers and principals are evaluated to reduce the reliance on student performance measures, starting in 2021-22. That bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, said this change will help drive up student performance by moving away from the teaching to the test mentality that he said diminished teachers’ ability to creatively instruct.

The new evaluation system increases the weight classroom observations carry in those job performance reviews to 70 percent, up from the current 50 percent. The measure would also apply a factor for student poverty level – in addition to student performance measures – in the remaining 30 percent.

Interest in changing the educator evaluation system was spurred by a 2017 law change that ended seniority-based teacher layoffs in Pennsylvania and tied those furlough decisions to educators’ job performance evaluation.

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