By Robert Swift
Staff Writer

HARRISBURG (Feb. 23) – The myriad of issues surrounding the return of elementary and secondary schools to regular in-person education amidst the COVID-19 pandemic were the subject Tuesday of a House Education Committee meeting.

Two state Education Department officials and officials from across the education spectrum fielded questions from lawmakers about changing guidance from Washington concerning resuming in-person instruction and scheduling the Keystone Exam and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).

The hearing also delved into other issues involving learning gaps due to the pandemic, undertaking remedial instruction, meeting student attendance requirements, student mental and emotional health needs and vaccinating teachers and school employees. The committee has scheduled a meeting Wednesday on the impact of COVID-19 on higher education.

“We prefer to see Pennsylvania non-cyber schools open for full in-person learning,” said House Education Committee Majority Chairman Curt Sonney, R-Erie, at the hearing’s start.

House Education Committee Minority Chairman Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, said a push is needed to vaccinate teachers and school employees so schools can reopen safely.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last week that schools follow universal mask wearing and social distancing when they reopen and base those decisions on the spread of COVID-19 cases in their community.

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

The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that it won’t offer a waiver for standardized testing requirements this year as it did last year.

In response, the state Education Department Tuesday released a plan for comment to extend the state’s testing window through September so schools have more time to address this matter.

The state Education Department has received a federal grant to study the pandemic’s impact on early childhood, supply of teachers, teaching and learning and social and emotional stress.

The pandemic has been tough on marginalized students, special needs students and younger students below the fourth-grade level.

“The emerging research suggests that is where some of the learning gaps have been realized,” said Matthew Stem, a deputy education secretary.

In line with that, the department is providing schools with advice on what type of instruction and curriculum to use for remedial programs taking place after school or during the summer, said Dr. Sherri Smith, director of the department’s Bureau of School Support.

Schools are receiving federal CARES money for remedial programs.

With the requirement of 180 days of instruction for the school year still in place as the pandemic continues, the department is giving advice to school districts on how to monitor student attendance during remote learning and addressing how instructional time is counted even when a student is not logged onto a computer, said Stem.

And there are issues harder to quantify.

“We are concerned more than ever about the social and emotional well-being of students and staff,” Art Levinowitz, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. There is a need for more social workers, he added.

On the new test scenario, Rick Askey, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the Education Department’s proposal to extend the test window to September will provide needed time and flexibility to address the issue.

A number of educators spoke about lessons learned from the pandemic.

The pandemic shows the need for having more school nurses, said Jason Budd representing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He said the ratio of one school nurse for each school building is inadequate to ensure healthy conditions.

“Diversity of academic instruction is more important than ever before,” said Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

“The challenge of this pandemic will be with us for many years to come,” said Jay Burkhart, superintendent of a York County school district.

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