State Rep. Stan Saylor says he'll try to block state funding for schools that don't fully open

Stan Saylor represents the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for the 94th District.

State Rep. Stan Saylor is threatening to try to cut state funding to schools that do not commit to completely opening for in-person education by next fiscal year.

The Windsor Township Republican, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, issued the threat in a statement Wednesday as schools in York County continue to close because of COVID-19 cases. Many of the schools have adopted hybrid learning, meaning they utilize both in-person and virtual instruction.

"We appropriate over $16.6 billion from the state’s General Fund to support PreK-12 and higher education," Saylor said in the statement. "If school districts, technical schools, community colleges or universities do not open their doors to full-time, in-person instruction, working with my colleagues, I will push to ensure the School Code prohibits them from accessing these dollars.”

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Neal Lesher, Saylor's spokesperson, said the goal would be to pass legislation to require schools to certify with the state Department of Education that they would have complete in-person learning beginning in the next school year.

But whether schools that decide to close in case of COVID-19 cases would be impacted by a potential funding freeze requires additional discussion, he said.

"Certainly we want to see the schools make an effort to stay in-person and follow CDC guidelines," he said. "But we’re obviously cognizant that cases might require closure."

Opening schools to full-time, in-person instruction has been at the forefront of Republicans' complaints about the Wolf administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wolf on March 3 announced that Pennsylvania will use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for pre-K through grade 12 teachers and other school staff to get children back into schools as soon as possible. Since then, more than 2,300 York County school employees have been vaccinated. 

"With the combination of the vaccine special program, federal funding and the dedication of school communities, we expect schools to open normally, and the representative's unproductive threats are a distraction from that process," said Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger.

Still, the administration also recommended that full in-person learning should only continue in counties with low-level  virus spread, while hybrid learning is recommended in counties with moderate spread.

In addition, hybrid learning is recommended for elementary grades  and full  remote learning is recommended for middle and high schools in substantial spread counties.

Only five counties were deemed to have a low level of COVID-19 transmission as of last week, according to the state Education Department.

Thirty-seven counties were classified as moderate, and 25, including York, were deemed as substantial.

Despite this, all York County schools are open for some form of hybrid or in-person instruction. Most districts have schools open to students four or five days a week, though there are a few schools that remain under a two-day per week hybrid schedule. 

“When I look at York County schools, I think they’ve done a phenomenal job of getting open and staying open,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township. “But we haven’t seen that statewide. And it’s to the detriment of students across the commonwealth.”

At least 12 local schools have temporarily closed in the last two weeks  due to a rise in COVID-19 cases linked to the buildings. Districts are required to comply with state guidance on school closures. Most of the temporary closures last one to four days. 

George Ioannidis, superintendent of Spring Grove Area School District, said he is unconcerned by Saylor's comments. Though his district is currently considering virtual learning options to provide students and employees next year, all Spring Grove schools have been open to students five days a week since the beginning of this school year, barring the occasional temporary closures. He said he intends to keep this schedule in place next year. 

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that schools maintain a distance of at least 3 feet between students for in-person instruction, which Saylor cited in his demands. The guidance assumes all students and teachers would be wearing masks at all times.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, said he was "very well aware that data are accumulating making it look more like 3 feet are OK under certain circumstances," but he didn't issue any guidance himself, according to Forbes.

Any additional guidance would come as health experts explore the possibility that available vaccines may not be as effective against emerging COVID-19 variants.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.