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How The PSEA Tried To Keep Bucks Students Out Of School

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Do you remember when the PSEA, the largest and most powerful teachers union in Pennsylvania that unequivocally backs Josh Shapiro for Governor, publicly attacked Dr. David Damsker and tried to keep Bucks County kids OUT of school?

We do.

On June 15th, 2020, Dr. Damsker released school guidance that followed data being used around the world, and advocated for all children to be in school. Per the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955, he had the legal authority to manage school mitigation efforts as the director of a county health department.

One of the most controversial points of his guidance allowed for student desks to be 3 feet apart, rather than 6 feet. This was important as schools did not have the physical space to be spread 6 feet apart.

Demanding that students sat 6 feet apart meant schools would remain virtual. The PSEA clearly understood this.

On July 16th, 2020, PSEA president Rich Askey wrote a letter to Governor Tom Wolf asking that all Pennsylvania schools require 6 feet of distance between desks (which would make virtual learning the only possibility at the start of the school year) stating,

“Considering the mitigation efforts included in your order, it is now more important than ever to ensure that every public school entity’s reopening plan includes essential activities and protocols aimed at reducing health risks. These include the proper sanitation of facilities, social distancing of no less than six feet, and the use of face coverings. I must underscore that, to reduce health risks, these activities and protocols must be included in every school reopening plan.

It is also extremely important for Pennsylvania’s public schools to plan for the distinct possibility that further increases in COVID-19 cases will make it impossible to safely reopen Pennsylvania’s schools for in-person instruction.

In public education, planning is paramount to providing the very best instruction for our students.

That is why it is absolutely essential that every public school entity in Pennsylvania is prepared to deliver online instruction. School entities that have not already developed plans for online instruction must immediately create them. So, I ask that you use your executive authority to direct school entities to work with their local education associations and develop thorough, complete, and well-reasoned online instruction models.”

Perhaps it was this pressure that lead Bucks County Commissioner Diane Marseglia to reach out to Governor Tom Wolf’s Secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs, Rob Ghormoz, saying,


Bucks County needs some clarity. We are good with masks in schools…we are buying every student a face shield, even. We are struggling with 6 feet. Is it 6 feet in schools, when feasible? Or 6 feet in schools UNLESS they have masks when 3 feet is ok. If it is masks and 6 feet we will not be able to open schools.”

Mr. Ghormoz responded saying,

“We are strongly encouraging 6 feet, but not mandating it.”

Dr. Damsker’s guidance was correct and lawful, as well as based on reliable data from around the world. However, the PSEA was relentless in their pursuit to keep students out of the classroom through the loophole of demanding 6 feet of distancing.

On July 23rd, 2020, MidAtlantic Region PSEA President, Bill Senavaitis, published an Op-Ed titled David Damsker’s remarks about 3-foot social distancing in schools are harmful.”

The Op-Ed was sharply critical of Dr. Damsker and ended with a public call to action against Dr. Damsker, saying,

“The Bucks County Department of Health should revise their school reopening guidelines to align with those made by the CDC and allow our students and staff at least the same level of basic prevention and protection as our colleagues across the state and country.

Now is not the time to fall short on protecting our students and staff. I urge educators, parents, and community members to contact Dr. Damsker’s office and ask him to revise his guidance to support the health of all individuals in our public schools.”

The next day Dr. Damsker defended his guidance in the local newspaper, saying,

Three feet was not pulled out of a hat,” he wrote. “The overall school guidance is based on information from many sources. The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization, Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pennsylvania Department of Health; these agencies all know that by strictly requiring the full six feet, it would make it almost impossible for any school district to reopen for full five-day-a-week in-person instruction…

“…It seems that some are critical of me and not anyone else for saying the same thing about six feet ’when feasible’ because I was willing to also offer a (three-foot) ’floor’ in the guidance to assist schools in planning their reopenings.”

With many Bucks County Schools planning to follow Dr. Damsker’s guidance and start the school year with in-person learning, the PSEA continued to push for virtual learning.

On August 5th, 2020, at Public Hearing regarding reopening Schools Fall 2020, in a statement that seemed to be directed towards Bucks County, Rich Askey pushed against local control of Covid mitigation in schools saying,

“As communities throughout Pennsylvania prepare to return to school in whatever form, the challenges are many and the answers are few. Reopening will look different in each school entity – that is the reality of a ’local control’ state. ’Local control’ should not, however, mean the absence of statewide consistency and clear expectations for certain protocols and strategies that have proven most effective for mitigating COVID-19 transmission in our schools. A failure to consistently apply mitigation strategies will result in needlessly exposing students, staff, and their families to a deadly virus with no cure…”

The next day, Rich Askey sent Dr. Damsker and the Bucks County Commissioners a letter, urging them to abandon Damsker’s advice and adhere to a 6 foot distancing standard (which, as Commissioner Marseglia stated, meant Bucks County would not be able to open schools).

…The members I represent in Bucks County want to teach and serve their students. Their commitment to the county’s children is nothing short of extraordinary. But, where schools are returning to in-person instruction, they want to be certain that schools reopen in ways that reduce health risks.

A mere 3 feet of social distance just doesn’t meet that standard. That’s why the county guidelines must change to clearly recommend 6 feet of social distance…

…Arguments about the impracticality of enforcing this standard in schools don’t justify it. As we all know from health experts, the coronavirus doesn’t recognize borders, and it won’t give us a pass just because keeping space between one another to slow its spread is too hard to do.

To reduce health risks, end the current confusion in Bucks County schools, and reduce anxiety for students, staff, and their families, I urge you to immediately change your school reopening guidance to require 6 feet of social distance in school buildings.

This is the right thing to do for public education in Bucks County. Please do it without delay.

In the fall of 2020, while private schools around Bucks County opened with in-person school, some 5 days a week, only 3 of 13 Bucks County Districts started the year with any in-person school. Some students wouldn't see a classroom at all until February 2021.

We are only beginning to understand the damage done to our children through these unnecessary school closures. Make sure to thank the PSEA for the role they played in keep Bucks County schools closed.

This November, let's learn from our mistakes and elect Doug Mastriano, a Governor who will fight to keep kids in school.

Unlike Josh Shapiro, who fought to keep kids OUT of school and will govern with the best interests of the PSEA, not our kids.

Our kids are depending on US.

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