The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Federation of Teachers asked the state department of education on Friday to reinstate stiff Covid-19 mitigation standards in schools across the commonwealth. If that proves impossible, the union requested that in-person instruction be paused for two weeks.
“In-person instruction is by far the best way for students to learn and for educators to teach. In addition to the academic value of in-person learning, many students across Pennsylvania rely on free and reduced-cost lunches and breakfasts,” said AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur G. Steinberg. “Ideally, we would keep all schools open for in-person learning all the time. However, that has become untenable with a rising rate of infection of teachers and a shortage of qualified substitute teachers.”
“Therefore, we are asking the Pennsylvania Department of Education to reinstate COVID mitigation layers in all school districts, rather than the current patchwork that exists. This includes negotiated vaccination mandates for educators and school staff, masking requirements with KN95 masks or greater, and asymptomatic and pool testing of students and staff regardless of vaccination status. If these layers of mitigation cannot be instituted in a timely manner, we believe there is no choice but to pause in-person learning for two school weeks.”
AFT PA is one of the largest teacher’s unions in the state, representing approximately 36,000 teachers and other education professionals, according to its press release.
The union’s requests did not sit well with Back to School PA (BTS-PA), a political action committee formed in 2021 that promoted school board candidates who pledged to commit to as much in-person instruction as possible. The PAC helped several dozen candidates win school board seats across the commonwealth in the November elections.
“We know that closing schools does not impact Covid cases,” said Beth Ann Rosica, executive director of BTS-PA. “We know that kids and teachers are safer in school than they are in the community based on the transmission rates of school and the community. And it is simply unconscionable that the teachers’ union at this point in time would be calling for a pause to in-person learning.”
A request for comment from the department of education was not immediately returned.
The move is certain to penetrate the many political races getting underway for the 2022 election.
“Pennsylvania AFT President Arthur G. Steinberg is calling for school closures. AGAIN! Making children and AFT member requests to keep schools open a priority is nothing to these political tyrants,” said Clarice Schillinger, the founder of BTS-PA, who recently announced her candidacy for lieutenant governor.
In support of her claim that closing or opening schools does not greatly impact Covid transmission, Rosica pointed to an article from United Press International in January 2021.
The data and studies referenced in that article do not take into account the Omicron variant, which is responsible for the upswing in cases this winter. However, while the Omicron variant has been determined to spread more rapidly, it is also turning out to be less deadly than previous variants.
The move by the AFT PA also comes just one day after Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said school administrators should strive harder to keep their doors open.
“Scientists measure the severity of a coronavirus variant by examining how many people infected by it end up in the hospital,” a report from the New York Times said. “The Delta variant turned out to be substantially more severe than earlier variants. But the reverse is true for Omicron. A British study found that the risk of hospitalization due to Omicron is half that of Delta.”
As the Omicron variant has wrought more havoc, it has crystalized the need for more substitute teachers.
“I do recognize that there are districts that are clearly having staffing issues, but not every district is struggling,” Rosica said. “Not every district is calling for remote learning and some districts have said that with the staff shortages, it’s actually harder to staff virtually than it is to do in person because they can pull people together and they can cover multiple classes in a way that they can’t do on Zoom.”
Last month, Governor Tom Wolf signed bipartisan legislation aimed at easing the shortage of substitute teachers.
The request lands as other school closures across the nation have ignited political fireworks and caused political rifts that were unimaginable just years ago. For example, in New York City and Chicago, Democratic mayors have tried to lay down strict orders or ultimatums on teachers and unions in efforts to keep classrooms open.
When teachers in Chicago, led by their union, demanded a move back to virtual instruction, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot exploded.
“We love our teachers. We appreciate them,” Lightfoot said. “But the [Chicago Teachers Union] leadership is a whole different matter. And we cannot allow them to blow up the school system because they decide that they want to engage in disruptive, chaotic conduct.”
A staffing issue also compelled a teacher’s union in New York City to request a delay in in-person instruction. Newly sworn-in Mayor Eric Adams rebuffed the call, saying, “the safest place for children is in a school building.”
A Broad + Liberty report last year showed that teachers unions in Pennsylvania had extraordinary access to the Wolf administration as it was crafting reopening guidance for the fall of 2020 — guidance that ultimately caused many districts that planned to be in-person to shift back to virtual learning.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com.