We must pass an agenda that values our children

We are in a fight to keep our kids safe and keep them in school. Last week, a school in our area was forced to close because of active COVID cases. This week, the Harrisburg Republicans who control the funding (or lack of funding) for our schools have called us into session to stop the secretary of health and Department of Education from requiring masks to be worn in all Pennsylvania schools. As I said at the beginning of August, the Delta variant of COVID poses a continuing threat, for our kids health and those they come in contact with, and in keeping them with the in-person learning they need.

In Philadelphia, I have been pushing for answers from the School District, which has a mask mandate and vaccination policy in place. However, the results at Richmond School and others around the City demonstrate that it needs better enforcement. It also needs to be strengthened to include broader testing of our kids, including asymptomatic kids. In this pandemic, children under the age of 12 are the only people who do not have the option of getting vaccinated. The combination of vaccination, social distancing, and mask wearing (especially indoors) has a proven track record of reducing COVID-Delta infections and serious illness. It is the policy we need if we are going to keep our schools open for in-person learning.

In Harrisburg, Republican lawmakers have apparently not read the news coming out of Philadelphia – or Butler County, Millersburg, Bethlehem, Northern York, and countless other school districts. COVID cases among kids have increased ten-fold. Cases among unvaccinated people (again, almost all our kids are not vaccinated yet) are more than 95% of deaths and hospitalizations. Ignoring these facts, the Republicans are focused on misplaced concepts of individual freedom to push for fundamental changes to how we have managed public health for almost 70 years.

In my parents’ and grandparents’ time, we defeated diseases that threatened public health by being jointly accountable to each other. As a society, we all knew that getting a vaccine for things like polio, smallpox, flu, measles, and chicken pox made us safer – and made everyone else around us safer. There was a common understanding of social responsibility. We are in such a time again.

In today’s world, with the threat of COVID, its Delta variant, and all the other variants that are coming, we must take direct action. The only way to stop the merry-go-round of school and business closures, of hospitals being overrun, and of the economic crises that result in lost work is to get as many people vaccinated as possible and to engage in other behavior that will mitigate the spread. This is a time for us to talk about our accountability to each other and to do things to protect ourselves, our children, and our neighbors. It is not a time to talk about individual freedom or to place those alleged freedoms above the common good. No one’s right to go maskless supersedes another person’s right to be healthy and not to die.

The distraction Harrisburg Republicans are creating around school masking and COVID mitigation policies allow them to dodge addressing other very serious issues – our schools and the environmental threats they pose to our kids’ health, like the mold found at Frankford High, which is just the tip of the iceberg. In June, the Republicans in Harrisburg passed a budget that stuck $2.3 billion into a ‘rainy day’ fund. As I have said before, it has been raining on us for years and we have to open the umbrella of that funding to renovate, remediate, and build schools that show our kids we care about them and their safety. This is good policy, not only because it deals with the generational threats of asbestos and mold, but also today’s viral threats like COVID. Schools with adequate ventilation and air monitoring systems will help protect from the new threats as well as the old.

And as we fix the physical structures to keep our kids healthy, we also must make sure there are professionals in those buildings to care for their well-being. The nurse shortage in Philadelphia schools is a serious problem. There are 17 school nurse vacancies, seven are out on sick leave and 11 schools with no full-time nurse. As the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said, the shortage “is at a precipice, and without swift remedial action, the health of our students and staff will be further jeopardized.”   

As we gather in Harrisburg this week to confront an agenda that does not value our children; we also need to hold our officials in Philadelphia accountable to doing all they can to implement policies – and truly enforce them – to keep our kids safe and the schools open.