Back-to-School Season in Pennsylvania Defined by Conflict

Back-to-School Season in Pennsylvania Defined by Conflict
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
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Parents of school-age children are increasingly anxious as the new school year approaches. Indeed, amid new and recycled policies surrounding the COVID-19 Delta variant, battles with local public school bureaucracies are intensifying.

While most governors and state-level authorities have so far avoided reentering the fray with statewide masking and vaccination mandates for students, the pressure is mounting – especially from teachers’ unions. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf told school districts to “make up their own mind.” But Wolf changed his tune just days after Pennsylvania teachers’ unions called for mask mandates in all K-12 schools.

The media and academic world, meanwhile, continue to stoke fear to strengthen their case for stringent policies. “If masks are optional, they’re not going to wear them,” Penn State University professor Casey Pinto recently warned on the danger of schools as “COVID-19 super-spreaders.”

While some Pennsylvania school districts plan on voluntary masking this autumn, a growing number will impose strict masking policies regardless of vaccination status and despite the Delta variant’s posing little threat to those under age 18. And with the CDC’s Delta-motivated flip on guidelines, the national media is even trumpeting calls for children to wear N95 masks all day.

Pennsylvania parents are vying for influence over how district bureaucrats and teachers’ unions will shape the school year. As the Bucks County Courier-Times recently reported, “Parents on both sides of the issue are refusing to back down.”

At a school board meeting in suburban Philadelphia’s Central Bucks, parents found themselves on opposite sides of masking rules. “The media wants you to believe that we are a ticking time bomb of death,” said Donna Sheenan, a Doylestown resident.

Another Central Bucks parent, Liz Dooley, remarked, “I don’t see why we can’t continue to wear a mask for a few more months just to protect people who really need it.”

Even as parents debate policies surrounding in-person education throughout Pennsylvania and around the country, the potential for school shutdowns looms large. While studies abound showing the alarming emotional and academic setbacks that students have suffered since last year – especially low-income and minority students – both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) are preparing for a return to remote instruction. AFT president Randi Weingarten hedged her bets last month, telling MSNBC that “we’re going to try to open up schools,” making clear that reopening was not guaranteed.

Instead of backing down, Pennsylvania parents are fighting for in-person education, using what they view as the most effective tool at their disposal: political spending.

“Since the last school year ended, we have been preparing for the possibility of additional school closures this fall,” said Clarice Schillinger, executive director of the Back to School PA political action committee.

Formed by concerned parents at a kitchen table, Back to School’s mission is to elect school board candidates committed to keeping classrooms open.

“Every child in Pennsylvania deserves a proper education, and to ensure that happens we’ve got to keep these schools open,” said Schillinger. “We know it can be done safely, as we saw last year when most private and many public schools around the world were in-person full time.”

It remains to be seen how successful these parents will be at influencing public school policies and elections. It’s already clear, though, that parents are pushing back against the domineering public school bureaucracy and embracing the notion that they should be the determining voice in their children’s education.

National polling shows increased support for education policies that allow funding to follow students wherever they go. Last year, an American Federation for Children poll showed 69% approval of school choice among all voters. June numbers show that this approval has grown to 74%. Responding to this rapidly growing support, 18 states have enacted 30 new or expanded educational choice programs this year.

Pennsylvania, as a microcosm of the United States, mirrors this demand. A 12-month tracking poll shows 65% of adults – and 73% of parents – support education savings accounts that would give parents control over educational funding. And last year, virtual charter schools saw an incredible 59% enrollment increase due to the pandemic.

As the Keystone State navigates dramatic changes to its educational system, the power remains in the hands of bureaucrats instead of parents – but even high-ranking officials can’t deny the need for options. At a Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee hearing, chairman Scott Martin asked state Education Secretary Noe Ortega what he would tell families unhappy with their local schools’ COVID policies. Ortega, a Democrat and stalwart supporter of teachers’ unions, replied to the straightforward question with a double negative: “We’re never going to not encourage folks to take advantage of the options in front of them.”

The right answer – the one that an increasing number of parents wants to hear – is that the government will start removing roadblocks so that they can choose the education they want for their own children.

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