Harrisburg Capitol

State Capitol in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — Teachers unions are expressing concern that too many school districts are rolling out safety plans that they say may not adequately protect staff and students from the spread of coronavirus.

School districts across the state are preparing to reopen — either in person or through remote learning — later this month. Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday reiterated that he’s leaving the decisions about how and whether to reopen schools up to local officials.

That has union officials concerned, Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association said today in a hearing convened by Senate Democrats on the controversy over school reopening.

Askey said teachers are worried that too many districts appear to be planning to treat mask-wearing in school as optional rather than as a requirement for students.

Not requiring masks when social-distancing isn’t possible “will needlessly expose students, staff and their families to this deadly virus,” Askey said. “As communities throughout Pennsylvania prepare to return to school in whatever form, the challenges are many and the answers are few.”

The PSEA, the state’s largest teachers union, is also concerned that too many school district health and safety plans don’t have clear explanations spelling out how the school will respond if a student or staff member comes down with coronavirus.

Arthur Steinberg, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Pennsylvania, which represents teachers in 61 school districts and schools, said that teachers want to return to the classroom but many of them are frightened that it will be unsafe.

Teachers are “afraid and angry, some are quitting or retiring or writing wills,” he said.

“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,” Steinberg said.

The union leaders’ comments were at the first of three days of hearings on the subject planned by state lawmakers this week. The House education committee is planning hearings on school reopening strategies and challenges on Tuesday and Wednesday — as concerns about the safety of school reopening intensify as the state struggles to control the spread of coronavirus.

Steinberg said union officials think that schools need to conduct a thorough assessment to identify every faculty and staff member and student who may be at higher risk of contracting coronavirus, as well as those who have family members who are at higher risk of contracting the virus.

The state Department of Education and Department of Health have both issued broad guidelines for local school districts to follow in determining how to operate while providing social-distancing protections to mitigate the potential spread of coronavirus in school. The state is requiring local school districts to approve and publicly post a health and safety plan spelling out their strategies for trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when classes resume.

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a school-funding advocacy group, said she thinks most local school officials are being diligent and doing their best to come up with plans that will make class as safe as possible.

“I think that they are taking this incredibly seriously,” she said, adding that with the intense public interest in these decisions, the process of defining how schools will operate “is excruciating” in some school districts.

“It’s really hard for school superintendents and nine school board members (in each district), they are being asked to make extraordinarily hard decisions and they are not public health experts,” she said.

Parents who are concerned about what their schools are planning should contact the principals in the schools where their children attend to get more information, Spicka said. Parents should also check their school websites for updates and watch school board meetings, she said.

Recommended for you