What is the Pennsylvania State Educators Association’s (PSEA) endgame? According to their website, the PSEA mission reads, “We are members who promote, protect, and advocate for our schools, students, and professions.” But does the union’s leadership care if teachers and students ever return to the classroom? And do they care about student achievement in the face of a year of devastating academic regression?

Back in the Spring, Summer, and even into the Fall, we did not hear much about the PSEA being a barrier to schools reopening. Until recently, the PSEA had the luxury to remain fairly quiet on the issue because there were so many other barriers and agencies providing them cover. For example, in Chester and Delaware counties prior to February 19, the Chester County Health Department (CCHD) had implemented relatively strict guidance mandating six feet of social distancing under all circumstances, which was used to keep schools closed. On the other hand, state-level guidance merely stated that six feet of social distancing should be implemented when feasible, allowing for three feet.

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Recognizing this important difference, a group of parents drafted a letter to the county commissioners urging them to update their guidance. The letter was signed by parents from 22 of the 28 school districts in the two counties and was emailed at 7:30 a.m. on February 10. By the end of the day, the PSEA made its presence on this issue known to us and sent a similar letter advocating for the CCHD to maintain the requirement for six feet of social distancing.

In response to the union’s demand to prioritize vaccines for teachers, Gov. Tom Wolf announced last week that they’ll be first in line for the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine. One has to wonder, will that be enough? If not, what obstacle will they think up next? 

Despite the teachers’ union counter letter, the CCHD guidance was amended. Going forward, they’d allow for three feet of social distancing with other mitigation factors in place. For a brief moment, parents believed we had finally broken through and our counties’ schools would be opened. But we didn’t realize how far the PSEA leadership is willing to go, or how powerful they are.

Interestingly, there was nothing in PSEA President Rich Askey’s February 10 letter about vaccines. Rather, he focused solely on arguing over the value of three versus six feet of mandated social distancing. But having lost that battle, Askey has since decided to use vaccination as yet another barrier—he is demanding vaccines for all teachers before schools can fully reopen. Never mind the expressed recommendations of both the Centers for Disease Control and the overly stringent CCHD that vaccination is not necessary to fully reopen schools.

In response to the union’s demand to prioritize vaccines for teachers, Gov. Tom Wolf announced last week that they’ll be first in line for the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine. One has to wonder, will that be enough? If not, what obstacle will they think up next? 

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In speaking with teachers in the region, they say, privately of course, that they want to return to their classrooms full-time. A review of teacher demographics in the state shows why. Over 70% of teachers are women, and the average age is 41. Meaning, many of Pennsylvania’s teachers are also mothers trying to navigate the challenge of working and taking care of their own children.  This is not an uncommon situation for modern women, but for a teacher it is particularly difficult to teach online and assist their young children with at-home, virtual instruction. Some teachers are even put into the peculiar situation of going into the classroom while their own children are on different, often hybrid schedules.

Additionally, achievement data show that the youngest students are falling furthest behind, and a Right-to-Know request recently revealed that the Philadelphia School District does not even maintain data on the number of students failing classes. Mental health and substance abuse issues among young people have skyrocketed. And a recent study shows a 333% increase in intentional self-harm behaviors for children aged 13 to 18 in the northeastern United States.

If teachers are essential, then they should be back in the classroom. And if students deserve equal opportunities, then PSEA should not be keeping some schools closed while others follow the science and open.

Despite these immense challenges being faced by both teachers and students—two groups who the PSEA claims to advocate for—the PSEA has given no indication that they are remotely interested in returning to in-person instruction any time soon. We’ve been left to hope that vaccination will be the last step. Even Gov. Wolf has been relegated to hoping it will work, saying last week, “if you’ve been offered a vaccine, you ought to be willing to go back to school.”

The PSEA has long advocated that teachers are essential workers—most parents would wholeheartedly agree. And they claim to believe in “equitable resources and equal opportunities for all students.” But if teachers are essential, then they should be back in the classroom. And if students deserve equal opportunities, then PSEA should not be keeping some schools closed while others follow the science and open. Teachers are either essential, or they are not. Students either get equal opportunities, or they don’t. You cannot have it both ways.

Teachers, students, and parents are frustrated with both virtual learning and hybrid learning. If everyone is clamoring to be back in the classroom full-time, who is PSEA actually advocating for? What is their endgame?

Beth Ann Rosica, Ph.D., a parent in the West Chester Area School District and an advocate for educationally disadvantaged students across the country, has a private consulting business in the Education and Human Services field.

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