By Rick Askey
As the summer draws to a close, we find ourselves on the doorstep of a school year like no other.
And, across the state, so many students, educators, support professionals, parents, and school leaders are asking the same questions. What are the rules? What can we do to reopen? What will school look like this year? Is it safe?
The 180,000 dedicated education professionals I represent as president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) are eager to return to their schools and classrooms. They want to be back with their students and colleagues.
But they want to do it in the safest possible way. They want to protect their students and their students’ families as well as their colleagues and their colleagues’ families.
And, like everything else Pennsylvanians have been asked to do to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we can only open schools safely if we follow the rules.
PSEA has been working with state leaders for months to encourage them to provide schools with a roadmap to safely reopening. In the last few weeks, the state departments of health and education have released directives and guidelines for school districts that, among other things, emphasize:
- The necessity of wearing face coverings to prevent the spread of the virus in schools;
- The need for social distancing in schools and classrooms;
- Science-based metrics for determining when it’s safe to hold in-person instruction and when online only or a blended approach of in-person and online instruction is needed; and
- Procedures informed by health experts for responding to COVID-19 exposures that occur at school.
These guidelines provide a clear pathway for school leaders. Now we need to make sure that every school in Pennsylvania follows them. Doing so will ensure that our students, staff, and families stay safe and that we slow the spread of this terrible virus.
Considering the rules, it is clear that students, teachers, and staff must wear face coverings in school buildings, unless they fall under an exception, such as students with certain disabilities do. We know from the experts that wearing a face covering is one of the single most impactful ways to prevent the spread of the virus.
There also is no question that everyone in school buildings should maintain 6 feet of social distance at all times. To recommend anything less than 6 feet in school buildings will put students and staff at risk.
And, perhaps more important than anything else, schools should follow the science-based health guidance on school reopening procedures that the state issued on Aug. 10. If a school is in a county where blended or remote learning plans are recommended, then that school should follow the guidance and do just that. Period.
Pennsylvania has produced these data-driven guidelines for a reason. The goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible by reducing health risks. To achieve this goal, we all need to take these rules seriously — and follow them.
Our schools are safe havens where Pennsylvania’s students learn and where dedicated educators and support professionals work. Taking unnecessary risks with the health of kids, school staff, and their families is simply the wrong thing to do during a pandemic.
But, if we follow these rules, we can still educate our students, while taking steps to stop the spread of this virus more quickly. That’s what it will take to open our schools for safe, in-person instruction.
This is what we all want. And if everyone works together and follows the rules, we can get there.
Rich Askey is a Harrisburg music teacher and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.