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Pennsylvania lawmaker says no state funding for schools that stick to virtual learning

(The Center Square) — A high-ranking Republican lawmaker in Pennsylvania said Wednesday the state should withhold funding from schools that don’t return to in-person instruction full time.

Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said he will push other House lawmakers to amend the state’s School Code to prevent districts, technical schools, community colleges or universities from accessing $16.6 billion in state aid unless the condition is met. 

He commended schools that “worked hard to keep their doors open” and pointed to a national study that concluded students could lose between five and nine months of learning by June as a result of the pandemic.

Image courtesy of Pennsylvania House of Representatives

“Unfortunately, we continue to see too many special interests and others fighting to keep other schools closed to in-person instruction,” Saylor said.

Teachers unions remain the loudest of critics of resuming in-person learning too soon without understanding what role children play in transmitting COVID-19. The American Federation of Teachers’ Pennsylvania chapter cautioned districts in January to resist the urge to reopen, even after the Department of Health said it could be best for elementary schools students. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this month in-person learning was safe again with social distancing of 3 feet between students.

Gov. Tom Wolf and acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam also launched an initiative to vaccinate up to 200,000 educators and support staff by mid-April in order to get schools open again. The program, which prioritizes the state’s doses of the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, has inoculated 100,000 workers so far, Wolf said last week.

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, said Friday the initiative will “go a long way” to reuniting school employees with students.

“It will ensure a safer environment for in-person instruction, protecting the health of educators, support professionals, students, and their families,” he said. “It will help us to get closer to normal and to get our economy back on track.”

Jason Gottesman, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, said Thursday that Saylor isn’t the only member contemplating the requirement, noting that many feel “returning to a normal course of education is imperative to the future of many across Pennsylvania.”

“There is broad support for the idea that, come this fall and with what we hope is a vastly-improved vaccine rollout, that schools of all levels should follow the science and reopen their doors to in-person learning,” he said. “Children, students, and families have suffered enough and lost too much ground from the patchwork of COVID-inspired education opportunities.” 

The Department of Education responded to Saylor’s comments in a statement to CBS21 News on Thursday, noting that with the vaccine initiative ahead of schedule, some schools have already reopened. The statement also defended ongoing remote instruction as the choice of local school leaders that prioritized safety above all else.

Plus, a $5 billion infusion of federal stimulus from the American Rescue Plan will help districts address the learning loss Saylor cited as concerning, the department said.

“With the combination of the vaccine special initiative, federal funding, and the dedication of school communities, we expect schools to open normally,” the department said. “The representative’s unproductive threats are a distraction from that process.”

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