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Education groups seek legislative action

HARRISBURG – Officials representing four statewide education associations called Wednesday for legislative action on a number of fronts to help public schools safely operate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic on the second day of a House Education Committee hearing on the topic.

The representatives for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials spoke with a greater sense of urgency than at an earlier June 17 committee hearing as many schools now face reopening in several weeks.

The committee hearing came with a leadership change underway at the state Education Department. Education Secretary Pedro Rivera is resigning Oct. 1 to become president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster. Gov. Tom Wolf nominated Noe Ortega, a deputy education secretary, on Tuesday to succeed him. But that transition wasn’t discussed during the hearing.

Generally speaking, those testifying said they want more detailed guidance from the state Education Department and state Health Department on specific questions involving the health and safety of students and staff.

But they also called for relief from state mandates in such areas as teacher certification, instructional days and standardized testing.

“The bottom line is that this pandemic has turned the already complex job of providing public education for all children in the Commonwealth into an impossible scenario requiring complicated planning and preparation with few explicit answers, many health risks, and looming financial disasters for many school districts due to significantly increased costs and unprecedented revenue losses,” said PSBA Chief Advocacy Officer John Callahan.

Public schools are expecting revenue shortfalls as high as $1 billion this fiscal year, Callahan said.

He urged lawmakers to address state reimbursement for transportation since the formula is based on filling as many seats on a school bus as possible. One evaluation estimates that on a 78-seat bus, only 14 seats could be filled to maintain a distance of six feet between each rider, added Callahan.

Schools could face a local revenue loss of at least $700 million to $800 million in a best-case scenario, said Shawn Sampson, speaking for PASBO.

This estimate is based on a state Independent Fiscal Office analysis of a loss of $450 million to $500 million in property tax, earned income tax and delinquent tax revenues in Fiscal Year 2020-21, Sampson said. In addition, PASBO projects a loss of $260 million to $290 million in realty transfer tax revenue and investment income, he said.

Lawmakers should extend the Act 13 mandate waiver process granted to schools for the 2019-20 academic year to cover the 2020-21 academic year, said Sampson.

“We are laser focused on masks,” said PSEA President Rich Askey. He recommended that face coverings be required for students and staff in all school settings.

“Unfortunately, it has become evident that many school districts are making masks optional for students in the upcoming school year, rather than requiring them,” said Askey.

The current school re-entry guidance by the American Academy of Pediatrics does not call for all students to be masked at all times.

In one exchange, state Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny, asked what guidance schools are getting to address a student or teacher testing positive for COVID-19.

The guidance is to call the health department and they will advise on a case-by-case basis, said Dr. Shane Hotchkiss, the PASA legislative chair.

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