Harrisburg – August 3, 2020 – At the request of state Senators Tim Kearney (D-Chester/Delaware), Maria Collett (D-Bucks/Montgomery), Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester) and Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held an online public hearing on strategies for schools to safely reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Reopening our schools will be a very complex and difficult challenge,” Collett said. “This hearing was aimed at helping us learn how state government can help encourage, coordinate and support teachers, school administrators, school boards and families as they plan for how they will operate this year.”

Kearney added, “It’s crucial that state and federal agencies readily provide our schools with reliable and dependable information so they can tailor their educational plans in the safest and most effective way.”

“AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Pennsylvania members want to be back in the classroom. We recognize the harm that social isolation can do to our students and that kids generally thrive more with in-person instruction,” Arthur Steinberg, President of the American Federation of Teachers in Pennsylvania, said. “However, the lack of a coordinated response by our federal government to provide for universal testing, comprehensive contact tracing, adequate PPE, or even a mask mandate has resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Americans. Asking teachers, students, parents, and communities to resume school as if none of this is happening is irresponsible.”

Dinniman, who serves as Democratic chair of the Senate Education Committee, said, “Holding classroom instruction this year will require a great deal of planning, innovation, and flexibility. For those that have already opted to go 100 percent online, we must work together to make online learning work for every student. As state lawmakers, we need to do all we can to provide helpful resources, equipment and support.” 

Farnese noted, “Schools face unprecedented challenges and will need to act and react quickly to the pandemic spiking or receding in their community. We also need to help provide funding for computers and other online resources for schools that have to limit instruction to hybrid or cyber learning.”

Senator Lisa Boscola (D- Lehigh/Northampton), who chairs the committee, said, “It is more important than ever that we share ideas, coordinate strategies, and prepare contingency plans to find the best possible way to get our kids back in classrooms as quickly as possible because we all want kids in school. We all want to see kids in classrooms, high school sports, dances and so many other great activities that make school so fulfilling and memorable.”

“We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open school buildings and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it,” Dr. William Keough of the PA Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said. “Ideally, local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents can work together to decide how and when to reopen schools.  These decisions must take into account the spread of COVID-19 in the local community, as well as whether their schools can make in-person learning safe.”

Dr. Keough also said that in addition to being vigilant about stopping the spread of COVID-19, parents must also keep up with their children’s regular immunizations for things like chicken pox, measles and polio. Vaccinations in Pennsylvania decreased 60% since the coronavirus pandemic hit, said the doctor. 

Brian Durand, a social studies teacher in the Abington School District, said that it is his personal health experiences of surviving cancer and a heart attack that are guiding his views on reopening the school that he teaches in, “I’m here to advocate for the unfortunately large number of students and teachers in our commonwealth who suffer from asthma, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, and any other number of ailments that still want to teach and learn, but also don’t want to find ourselves back in a hospital, or worse.”

Boscola said the school issue has been further complicated by emerging evidence that many people who recover from COVID-19 will face serious, and sometimes permanent health problems. Joseph Brennan, a cardiologist at the Yale School of Medicine, recently stated that many patients who recover could suffer long-term damage, including lung scarring, heart damage, and neurological and mental health problems.

“While it is tragic to not see friends and teachers in person, it would be even more tragic if there is a death in a school district or of one of our family members due to COVID-19. I value my life, the lives of my classmates, my teachers, and my family as well as those of students and teachers across the state,” rising Pottstown High School Senior, Kishan Patel, said. “Life cannot be replaced.”

The Senate Democratic Policy Committee has hosted numerous hearings related to COVID-19, including the impact on nursing and veterans’ homes, food supply chain disruptions, the disproportionate impact on the African American Community, pandemic-related funding for childcare centers, and assuring that protective equipment and other support is accessible for frontline workers.

Senators Jay Costa (D- Allegheny), Jim  Brewster (D- Allegheny/Westmoreland), Anthony H. Williams (D- Philadelphia/Delaware), Steve Santarsiero (D- Bucks), Sharif Street (D- Philadelphia), John Blake (D- Lackawanna/Luzerne/Monroe), Pam Iovino (D- Allegheny/Washington), Katie Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), and Lindsey Williams (D- Allegheny) also participated in the hearing today.

The following testified:

  • Jerry Jordan, President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
  • Arthur Steinberg, President, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania
  • Rich Askey, President, PA State Education Association
  • Jennifer Hoff, School Board President, William Penn School District
  • Sherri Landis, Executive Director, The Arc of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. William Keough, MD,MSc,FAAP, Co-Chair Advocacy Committee, PA Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Tomea A. Sippio-Smith, K12 Policy Director, Public Citizens for Children and Youth
  • Keith Pretlow, Teacher, Ben Franklin High School
  • Leanna Goodrich, Teacher/Parent, Pennridge High School
  • Brian Durand, Teacher, Abington School District
  • Kishan Patel, Rising Senior, Pottstown Senior High School

A full recording of this hearing, and links to all previous hearings, is available at senatorboscola.com/policy.