To reopen our schools safely, Pennsylvania needs Congress’ help | Opinion

June 4, 2020 6:30 am

By Rich Askey

In the months since COVID-19 closed our schools, educators, parents, and students did a tremendous job transitioning from classrooms to kitchens and living rooms across Pennsylvania. Teachers continued teaching, and students continued learning — at a distance.

This is far from the perfect way to educate our students. It’s not easy to teach in this environment, and the challenges so many parents have had juggling work, home, and kids during this crisis were truly without precedent.

We need to get our kids back in school. Educators and administrators are already planning for what that will look like. We still have a lot of work to do, but one thing is clear: Our schools will need federal help to reopen safely.

That is why the Pennsylvania State Education Association is joining educators, parents, and community leaders to urge Congress to invest $175 billion in our nation’s schools, colleges, and universities. This investment will provide Pennsylvania with enough funding to close the revenue shortfalls K-12 schools and higher education are facing and reopen safely.

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Lawmakers in Harrisburg came together early on in this pandemic to take decisive steps to clarify state-level education policies. Their bipartisan efforts were commendable, but our state and local officials can only do so much.

The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are causing local earned income tax revenues to plummet. According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, K-12 school districts could face massive local revenue shortfalls of as much as $1 billion in 2020-21.

At the state level, the challenges are just as acute. Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office is projecting a $4.8 billion loss in state revenue over the next year.

Add to this the fact that the state and school districts are required to enact balanced budgets every year. With revenues falling, many districts will need to make difficult decisions to balance their budgets at exactly the same time when keeping students and staff safe from COVID-19 dictates higher costs. That means the only place we can turn for help is to the federal government.

If we address this crisis by making deep cuts to state and local education budgets, PSEA estimates that the state could lose up to 40,000 jobs in education, a move that will put Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million students at tremendous risk.

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For schools to reopen safely, we will need custodians to sanitize and maintain school buildings and buses. We will need school nurses to assess and manage the physical health and wellbeing of students and staff. We will need counselors, psychologists, and social workers to support students and provide mental health services. We will need enough teachers to keep student learning on track and avoid overcrowded classrooms.

Schools just can’t do all of this important work with as much as $1 billion in lost revenue, and the state is not in a financial position to help. We need Congress to step up and invest in the cornerstone of our democracy — public education.

Everyone with a stake in public education shares the goal of reopening our schools in a way that protects the health and safety of students, staff, and visitors. Educators want to be back in their classrooms this fall, and so do their students.

But the safety and wellbeing of students and staff cannot be compromised. We need to keep the physical spaces in our schools free from illness, and we also must be ready to address the needs of our students, including the trauma this pandemic has caused.

Congress holds the key to successfully reopening our schools. I urge our U.S. senators and representatives to use that key to unlock the resources our schools need and ensure that every student is safe, healthy, and learning — because help from the federal government is the only option we have.

Rich Askey is a Harrisburg music teacher and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. He writes from Harrisburg.

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