Lawmakers grill state health, education secretaries on safety of returning to schools

Back-to-school reopening plan
Photo credit Amy Mitchell/Getty Images
By KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Conversations regarding the safest ways to get kids back in school have been heated, so it’s no surprise that there were some tense moments when lawmakers questioned Pennsylvania health and education secretaries.

While the state continually says guidance is only a recommendation, Chester County state Sen. Andy Dinniman said he’s hearing from many school officials who say it’s really a mandate.

“It becomes a mandate because lawyers and others will sue the school district, and they’ll have trouble getting any insurance because the guidance was ‘you were to do X and instead you did Z,’ ” he said to Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera.

However, Levine said they designed the guidelines “at the strong request of these school districts themselves, of the superintendents, of school boards, actually including the legislature.”

She emphasized that final decisions are left up to local school boards.

Additionally, one of many hurdles school administrators face is staffing, especially substitute teachers — a difficult task even before COVID-19.

Rivera said they are working to change requirements, making it easier to find substitutes, but that’s a fine line.

“We are having those conversations, but at the end of the day, we don’t just want to open the floodgates and let anyone into our classrooms,” he said.

Both Rivera and Levine said the goal is to have children safely in classrooms, but they can’t predict what will happen if they do so, so they’re trying to prepare for every scenario. 

Children can contract the virus and then spread it to their parents, grandparents, or other relatives.

“We have to take the whole multi-family, multi-generational picture into consideration,” said Levine, “and take the whole community into consideration as we make recommendations for schools.”

Levine said the only way to slow a contagious virus like COVID-19 is to get a vaccine or take steps to contain it. If you don’t take those steps, she noted, case counts could look a lot like Florida’s.

“(Pennsylvania) had 570 new cases. Florida had about 5,000 new cases,” she said.

Montgomery County

Unlike Chester County, Montgomery County officials say they are not planning to make any sweeping announcements about reopening schools.

Last week, the Chester County Health Department recommended all schools in both Chester and Delaware counties start the year online, until at least Oct. 9.

“We are not planning on putting out guidance like that,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Dr. Val Arkoosh.

Instead, the guidance for Montgomery County schools is simply available on the county’s website.

“We’ve been working very closely with our school superintendents in the development of that guidance, and so they all have as do all of our school boards,” Arkoosh added.

Delaware County does not have a health department, so it’s relying on Chester County.

Chester County Health Director Jeanne Casner said they’re recommending no in-class instruction until Oct. 9 to make sure schools have time to get all the materials they need. And, she said, it also gives a cushion in case there is a spike in cases after Labor Day — similar to Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.