Learning concerns top hearing

Students’ losses in reading, math discussed

HARRISBURG — Providing a timetable for returning grade K-12 students to regular in-person education amidst the COVID-19 pandemic was a popular topic at a House hearing Monday devoted to education spending.

This was the lead-off question at the Appropriations Committee hearing on the fiscal year 2021-22 budget request for the state Education Department.

On an emerging issue, Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, asked what is being done to help students experiencing losses in reading and math skills due to the pandemic.

“This is not a loss that can be made up in a few months,” said Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega. “We are talking about a generational loss.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Education will provide school districts with tools to identify learning needs and provide remedial help within a matter of weeks, said Deputy Education Secretary Matthew Stem.

“There is a great concern here to get our children back at school full-time as quick as possible,” said Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, who also called for vaccinating teachers. “This is setting our children back for years.”

In Pennsylvania, some schools are open for in-person education five days a week, some offer just remote education and others pursue a hybrid approach mixing in-person and remote education.

PDE is following recent recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that schools require universal mask wearing and social distancing when they reopen and base those decisions on the spread of COVID-19 cases in their community, said Ortegam adding he recognizes the importance of getting young students back in school.

Ortega said the issue of setting priority for vaccinating teachers and carrying it out is before the newly created COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force with the Health Department and General Assembly.

On that topic, Stem said PDE has no plans to require that teachers and school employees get the vaccine to keep their jobs.

Reps. Morgan Cephas, D-Philadelphia, and Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, urged a greater emphasis to address long-standing inequities that poorer schools face with aging and ill-ventilated school buildings and lack of broadband capacity for remote learning.

Gov. Tom Wolf has made increased education funding a centerpiece of his budget proposal, with a plan to hike the state personal income tax rate, expand tax exemptions for low-to-moderate income earners and greatly increase the aid funneled to districts through a fair funding formula enacted several years ago. Of the revenue generated by the income tax hike, $1.3 billion would be used to protect schools that would be negatively impacted by the switch to the new funding formula.

Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Lancaster, expressed concern that rural schools could be aid losers in future years if the proposal is adopted.

Deputy Education Secretary Danielle Mariano noted the governor’s commitment within his proposal to make sure no district receives less funding in future years.

Also discussed was the Education Department’s effort to draft a plan to extend the testing window for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment until September.

House Education Committee Minority Chairman Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, asked if it’s possible to use the PSSA to identify the learning gaps due to the pandemic.

Stem said that PDE is looking at that approach while addressing other issues, such as lack of student broadband access.


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