Pittsburgh, PA − March 3, 2021 − Today, Senator Lindsey M. Williams co-chaired a Joint Committee Hearing of the Senate Education Committee and Senate Health and Human Services Committee focused on the impacts that COVID-19 has had on education over the past year. The hearing included testimony from local school administrators, teachers, parents, and students.
“Being intentional about how we reflect on the impacts that COVID-19 has had on education— especially on our students, parents, and teachers who have felt the impacts most directly—is incredibly important,” said Senator Williams.“Connecting directly with them about their experiences over the past year is critical to understanding how we as the legislature can provide the support that our schools need as they continue to educate our children and care for the physical and mental well-being of all of the members of the school community.”
Dr. Janell Logue-Belden, Superintendent of the Deer Lakes School District, worried about the mental health impact that high-stakes standardized testing has on our students, especially students with special needs. “They’re made to feel they can’t do the work and they just aren’t able to perform. They’re going to be judged, and they know it, on things that are beyond their control. Students have asked ‘Am I going to make the school look bad if I get a bad score?’” Senator Williams and Education Majority Chair Senator Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) recently sent a letter to the Biden Administration requesting a waiver for federal annual assessments for the 2020-21 school year. While the Biden Administration has offered some flexibility in testing, it has declined to offer a waiver for annual assessments as was issued in the 2019-2020 school year.
Josie Cosentino, a junior at Mount Lebanon High School, urged compassion. She noted that, as a student who made the difficult choice to do full online schooling this year in order to lessen the risks for an extremely immuno-compromised family member, she often feels guilty for the burden that online schooling puts on her teachers and fellow classmates, even though it was the best choice for her family. “It is hard to believe that I live in a time when the choice between education and health is asked to be made,” said Ms. Cosentino. “All I am asking for is compassion, the mutual awareness that everyone else is struggling too. Students are hurting, students are tired, and students are completely and totally overwhelmed.” Ms. Cosentino finished her testimony by encouraging lawmakers to use the COVID-19 crisis as “An opportunity to change how we do things, an opportunity to look at what is wrong and fix it, and an opportunity to evolve.”
Rachel Schlosser, a Pittsburgh Public Schools parent and special education advocate, spoke about the added level of challenges faced by the special education community both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying “Simply focusing on opening school buildings won’t fix all the problems and it certainly won’t guarantee access for all students… students and families are now in competition with each other to prove which of their children are more deserving, further eroding trust in public education and destroying school communities.” Ms. Schlosser also emphasized that special needs families are facing the decision between having students repeating a current year of schooling to address retention or losses of skills now and having their child lose out on a year of transitional services later in life.
Robert Mitchell, a Spanish teacher from Pittsburgh Classical Academy, spoke passionately about how teachers miss teaching their kids in person, saying, “Only one thing could keep us apart; the valid concern we have for each other’s safety.” Mr. Mitchell continued that not all results of the pandemic have been bad, highlighting that many districts have been able to lessen the digital divide by providing students with personal technology, and citing the privilege he has to see his students in a new light, surrounded by their siblings, pets, and home life. But overall, he emphasized that what most teachers really want is to “return safely to school as quickly as possible and get on with the business of learning,” through the use of mitigation strategies, testing and case tracking, and teacher and building staff vaccination.
During this hearing, Governor Wolf and the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force announced that Pennsylvania will use the Johnson & Johnson single-dose COVID vaccine to vaccinate PreK-12 teachers and other school staff. “I’m encouraged that the Administration has prioritized the safe reopening of our schools by using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to expand vaccine access for our teachers and school staff. We heard again today at the hearing how important it is to get students back in the classroom as safely as possible,” said Senator Williams. “However, I also understand that there are still many people who are anxious to get the vaccine, including first-responders and non-healthcare frontline essential workers that are in Phase 1B. We still have a ways to go to ensure equitable and easy access to the vaccine for everyone and I hope that COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force will be working to address these issues as quickly as possible.”
The full list of testifiers included:
- Noe Ortega, Acting Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Education;
- Matt Stem, Deputy Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education;
- Alison Beam, Acting Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Health;
- Keara Klinepeter, Executive Deputy Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Health;
- Dr. Michael Leichliter, Superintendent, Penn Manor School District;
- Dr. Samuel Lee, Superintendent, Bensalem Township School District;
- Dr. Janell Logue-Belden, Superintendent, Deer Lakes School District;
- Daniel Breen, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg;
- Patricia Rossetti, Chief Executive Officer, PA Distance Learning Charter School;
- Scott Gordon, Chief Executive Officer, Mastery Schools Network;
- Lilly Heilshorn, Student, Hempfield School District;
- Josie Cosentino, Student, Mt. Lebanon School District;
- Chad Williams, Parent;
- Rachel Schlosser, Parent;
- Streeter Stuart, Teacher, Penn Manor School District;
- Rob Mitchell, Teacher, Pittsburgh School District.
Full video of the hearing is available on Senator Williams’ website. Full transcripts of written testimony are available upon request and will be posted to the website.