Some struggled to adjust to pandemic learning. A Pa. Senate bill could address gaps

By: - May 16, 2021 6:30 am

After working full-time and serving as a “pseudo-teacher,” for more than a year, Holly Swanson — who has two kids and a husband with cancer — could hold her children back a grade.

At least that’s what a bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, proposes.

The legislation, Senate Bill 664, would give parents the power to decide if their child should advance to the next grade level. 

Currently, the decision to hold a student back is made by the school and teacher in consultation with parents.

“In many cases, students were being taught by their parents at home, and I don’t know who would have a better understanding of what the education loss would be more than the parents,” Corman said.

When she was deciding between remote and in-person instruction, Swanson opted for what she thought was safest for her family. 

But the Centre County mom could not have predicted how remote instruction would affect her third- and eleventh-graders. As she tried to juggle work with monitoring their assignments, her kids struggled with being away from their friends.

“Especially in the beginning, my youngest daughter who is 9 years old thought it was optional — like she didn’t have to go to these classes if she didn’t want to,” she said. “I had to keep a schedule, and she does most of her schoolwork in her bedroom, so I had to make sure she was online and not playing ‘Animal Crossing’ during library.”

The bill, which unanimously cleared the majority-GOP Senate on Wednesday, is now before the Republican-controlled state House. It only would apply during the 2021-22 academic year and addresses learning gaps related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Parents also would have the option to extend enrollment in special education programs for one year; this would prevent students from aging out of the system when they turn 21. In addition, the bill would apply to families whose children attend schools for the deaf and blind.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the flow of life and certainly the flow of the transition process that occurs at the later stages of education for persons with an intellectual or developmental disability,” Becky Cunningham, CEO of the Arc of Centre County, said in a statement. “It is our mission to help people to not just live, but to thrive in their community.”

An amendment developed in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Education would give parents until July 15 to decide on holding a child back.

“I think it’s a good option. I think that anything that puts the parents in a better position to have a say in their education is a positive thing,” Swanson said of the bill. “The parents have a much better understanding of what’s going on right now. Even the kids in the classroom, from what I understand, watch screens all day as well, so. It’s not like they’re getting a regular in-classroom experience either.”

Linda Andreassi, a spokesperson for the Seneca Valley School District in the northern Pittsburgh suburbs, said the district is still learning more about the proposal and could not predict how many families would participate.

What’s important is academic student success, she said.

“We are supportive of any effort that assists our students in meeting their long-term academic goals,” Andreassi added. “If we have learned anything this past year, it’s the importance of being open to and flexible with the educational needs of our students.”

In an email, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association said the state’s largest teachers union had not taken a position on the legislation.

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