Lawmakers hear schools face range of challenges in reopening
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania state lawmakers heard about the slew of challenges ahead when schools reopen during a pandemic, as two days of hearings that ended Wednesday offered little reason for optimism.
In hours of testimony before the House Education Committee, school officials and other experts said there has been months of planning but there are also concerns about what lies ahead.
“How prepared are we? We’re as prepared as you possibly can be,” said John Callahan, lobbyist for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “I think schools are taking every action they can, listening to every piece of advice.”
Among the issues are questions about what standards schools should use to decide whether to shut down a school or a district when an outbreak occurs, a prospect that looms large as the school year is about to begin.
“What happens if a student tests positive, a teacher?” asked Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill. “Because if you don’t have a plan in place, you can be prepared to hear exactly what we’ve been hearing, which is what the hell have you been doing to prepare for this?”
Bermudian Springs Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss, representing the state superintendents’ association before the committee, said the state Health Department has promised to respond to all outbreaks.
“We keep hearing that it’ll be handled on a case-by-case basis, about what to do, how to determine who’s been in close contact” with sick students or staff, Hotchkiss said.
Officials expressed concern they may not be able to obtain personal protective equipment, both the types of equipment they need and the amounts that will be required to get through the school year.
School nurses said they were worried about the fate of “medically fragile” students, and whether adequate safety measures will be followed, both at schools at at students’ homes.
“What all should we be doing with regard to a licensed medical professional in each building? Is that something we should be prioritizing, and how should Harrisburg be helping out?” said Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny.
The coronavirus outbreak has caused difficulties feeding students who rely on subsidized meals. There are concerns that lawsuits over infections that are linked to schools could cripple districts, and schools are hoping to get some type of legal immunity.
Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Blair, asked how should districts should handle sports and other extracurricular activities.
“Are there plans in place at the local level that you believe you can hold these events safely?” Topper asked.
Callahan said those decisions are all being made locally, with different results.
“There’s even been a few districts that have canceled fall sports completely. This has been a local decision,” Callahan said.
School officials said virtual education that is being widely expanded during the pandemic is limited in some places by a lack of internet connectivity. Some families can’t afford it, while others live where there is not a commercial provider.
The committee heard concerns about the safety of bus transportation, and the ability to fill teacher and substitute teacher vacancies.
Schools are asking for flexibility when it comes to the minimum 180 days of education required under state law.
In other Pennsylvania coronavirus developments:
The state Health Department reported more than 700 confirmed cases of COVID-19, for a running total of at least 115,000. There were also 12 new deaths reported, making the pandemic’s death toll in Pennsylvania 7,244.