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Allegheny County Lawmaker Wants To Protect School Districts From Closure-Related Lawsuits

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

School districts across the state are figuring out how to create remote learning systems after Gov. Tom Wolf said schools would remain closed indefinitely. But some districts have held off, saying they were concerned they wouldn’t be able to teach all students – especially those with special needs.

Now, State Rep. Jake Wheatley plans to introduce legislation that would protect districts from being sued for operational changes they make during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We understand this is different than any other time we’ve had to educate students and we want to protect them from the fear of being sued because they’re trying to deliver education to all students,” he said.

The State Department of Education encouraged districts to begin remote instruction and has asked them to make a good faith effort to teach students with disabilities.

The state has also said districts will not be penalized if they do not meet the required 180 days of instruction because of the statewide closure. Wheatley said that doesn’t mean schools should avoid educating kids altogether.

“We should go ahead and start that process and then continue to figure out ways to make sure that none of our students fall behind. Because right now, all of our students are falling behind,” he said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools plans to start remote instruction April 16 after weeks of closure. Students with disabilities and English Language Learners are guaranteed a “free and appropriate education” according to the federal Department of Education, and Wheatley said superintendents across the state have voiced concerns about running afoul of that rule with when schools resume classroom instruction. 

PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said he postponed remote learning because of those equity concerns. The district is also buying 5,000 computers to meet the needs of students without access to devices. Hamlet said the district is still determining how grading will work.

Wheatley said his effort to protect districts isn’t an attempt to restrict parents’ rights, but to protect public schools during a vulnerable time. He said he doesn’t know when he will introduce HB2375 because he isn’t sure if scheduled session days will be canceled.