HARRISBURG, Pa. — State Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York) announced he intends to require all public schools—school districts, community colleges, technical schools and universities—to return to in-person instruction in order to receive state funding, starting in the fall.
A year after Pennsylvania schools abruptly shut down amid the pandemic, 87 percent of schools are still offering remote learning part- or full-time, according to Return To Learn, a database created by a conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute, and Davidson College.
Saylor argues continuing remote learning is hurting students.
Students who attended classes online learned only 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of the reading that grade-level peers would typically have learned by the fall, according to an October 2020 study analyzed by McKinsey and Company.
“We have to be clear to the taxpayers and students where we want to head: we’re going to be back in the classroom, we’re going to move forward from this pandemic,” Saylor said.
Saylor, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was considering legislation to ensure schools do reopen in-person by Labor Day 2021. He cited recent evidence that they are becoming more ready to do so.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday announced more than 102,000 teachers and educators have been vaccinated in Pennsylvania.
The CDC last week shortened social distancing guidelines in schools from 6 feet to 3 feet.
“There’s really no excuse for not being in when you have the CDC saying it’s perfectly safe, you have teachers fully inoculated with the vaccine as well,” Saylor said. “There’s just no excuse.”
His proposal has received backlash from Pennsylvania House Democrats.
“It certainly is a large stick to say we’re not going to provide any funding to schools that do not return to in-person instruction,” said State Rep. Mark Longietti (D-Mercer), chair of the House Education Committee.
Longietti said returning to in-person classes is a bipartisan goal, but each district should decide when they’re ready to reopen.
“There are still concerns, particularly for school buildings that have poor ventilation systems that are unable to properly socially distance,” Longietti said. “We need to balance public safety with public education.”
Longietti added that withholding funds could violate the Pennsylvania Constitution clause requiring a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) also opposed the measure, writing in a statement,
“It’s unfortunate that Rep. Saylor is resorting to threats rather than seeking out ways to work collaboratively… Policymakers should be focused on keeping students and their families safe, not putting politics over science… Doing what’s right and not what’s convenient is the way to get our schools and our economy open and back to normal.”
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Pat Toomey echoed the sentiments of Pennsylvania state Republicans at a U.S. Senate Banking Committee hearing, where he spoke on the importance of reopening schools as quickly as possible.
Toomey said remote learning is widening the education gap between the rich and poor, as those who most need in-person services are kept longer without them.
“Wealthy families can afford to go to private schools and private schools are open. They have been open,” Toomey said. “But the public schools—and if you’re a low or middle-income person, you don’t’ have the luxury of sending your kids to a private school. They tend to be closed.”
Toomey also criticized elements of the newly passed American Rescue Plan, saying it rewards people for not working and that it will slow pandemic recovery.