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Pennsylvania educators fret as the school year looms with no concrete state guidance

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(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania educators say they face an enormous challenge when it comes to reopening schools later this month.

With 500 different districts, the state Department of Education says mandating a one-size-fits-all plan makes little sense. But for the administrators, teachers and school boards tasked with filling the gap, the lack of concrete recommendations means educators must make decisions that might be better left to public health officials.

“A significant number of school districts haven’t finalized their plans, so we haven’t seen them yet,” said David Broderic, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state’s largest teacher’s union. ”We are certainly concerned because our goal is to have schools reopen in the safest possible way. So, it’s something we are thinking about every single day.”

The importance of safely reopening schools is twofold, onlookers have said: educational outcomes for students are dramatically better for in-person education, and it would be even more difficult to generate economic growth if the many parents who lack other options cannot send their children to school and return to their jobs.

But what constitutes a safe reopening can be a matter of debate, hence educators’ desire to know what the state’s expectations are in that area.

It’s not a problem unique to Pennsylvania. The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million teachers across the country, threatened to strike if reopening plans don’t meet sufficient safety standards.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president, said the union’s executive council voted last week that “nothing is off the table.”

“Not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes,” he told Politico on Tuesday.

The Center Square reached out to AFT’s Pennsylvania chapter for comment but heard no response. Broderic said PSEA isn’t considering strikes at this time, but says more concrete guidance from the state would go a long way to helping the union meet its goal: reopening in the safest way possible.

The state Department of Education did not respond on Friday to the criticism levied against its general guidance, nor other questions posed by The Center Square.

Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), told The Associated Press that state officials won’t even give recommendations for how to handle students or staff that test positive for the virus, preferring instead to respond on a case-by-case basis. The approach leaves schools in a precarious predicament, DiRocco said.

“We’re going to do the best we can to keep our kids and our staff members safe, but if something happens down the line, we learn a month from now we should’ve been doing ‘X’ instead of ‘Y,’ we want it to be known that you put that decision in the hands of your local superintendent and your local school board members to make those calls, and they’re not public health experts,” he said.

The frustrations have bubbled over into the Legislature, where the House Education Committee has organized a two-day hearing on Aug. 4 and 5 to discuss reopening plans and legislation that might help bring clarity to the situation.

“Across the board there has been a lack of communication, direction and transparency from the Wolf administration on how our schools should reopen,” said Majority Chairman Curt Sonney, R-Erie. “We are running out of time. We need answers and solutions. We must prioritize our students – we cannot let them fall through the cracks.”

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