There are lots of things to worry about as the 2020-21 school year gets education back into gear.
Do we send the kids back into the classroom in spite of covid-19? Does the coronavirus caution us to keep them at home? Do we do both? Do we strike a balance in the middle?
What about kindergarteners who are just embarking on their educational journey? What about the high school seniors who need to be prepared for college next year?
There are so many valid issues regardless of which path is taken for kids with special educational needs, health challenges and developmental delays. There are just as many for teachers and other employees.
But there is another issue for state and school board officials to grapple with. Liability.
According to reporting from Spotlight PA, the issue of what happens if students or staff members contract the disease that shut down Pennsylvania schools in March is now a top concern.
It would seem like an employee who gets sick at work would obviously be covered by workers’ compensation, but two prosecutors in Allegheny County were denied coverage when they were told there was no proof of where they acquired the virus. One, Russ Broman, subsequently died.
One difference between the courts and schools — both vital aspects of the government that impact communities of all sizes — is the direction they have been given. The state Supreme Court makes the rules for how lower courts function. A judicial emergency was declared in March, restricting court actions. That was lifted in June.
Schools are not given that kind of yes or no, open or closed directive.
The Wolf administration has worked in shades of gray guidelines and recommendations, which has created questions from the outset. Does a recommendation to keep students six feet apart constitute a requirement? If a school doesn’t have the space to satisfy that recommendation, is a school district in the wrong for not living up to it?
“In the end, is it not true that what you say is a recommendation, ends up being a mandate because school districts are afraid of being sued and taxpayers losing millions of dollars?” state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, said in a hearing Wednesday.
So could school districts be sued if someone gets sick for reopening without meeting state guidelines? What about if they did meet them? It’s hard to say.
Gov. Tom Wolf has carved out liability protections for health care, but once again operates in murkier areas with schools, although a spokesperson who noted the difficulty of navigating federal and state overlaps isn’t wrong. It is definitely complicated.
But that’s no excuse for letting the questions fester for the school districts rather than defining the parameters and pitfalls.
School districts have to teach kids how to find the right answers. They need to make the right decisions for taxpayers. They deserve to be given the right answers from the state.