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Committee says yes to local plan by Corman

Plan made to offer an optional year of school next year

HARRISBURG — Parents would have the option to allow their children to repeat a grade level due to the learning disruptions created by COVID-19 under a bill approved by the Senate Education Committee Monday. It could begin its journey on the senate floor as early as today.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Bellefonte), who represents Mifflin and Juniata counties, sponsored the bill.

Currently, the decision on whether to hold a student back is made solely by the child’s school and teacher. Corman’s legislation would give parents the option to make that decision for the 2021-22 school year since they are in the best position to gauge their child’s development and educational needs after students have spent much of the past year learning at home.

If passed by both houses and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf, parents must make a decision by July 15 whether a school district will be required to keep a student in the same grade for another year.

The state Department of Education and other stakeholders were given the opportunity to weigh in on the bill, which was forwarded to the full senate for consideration. Among the mostly technical changes to the original bill was to apply the requirements to private and charter schools for the education of deaf and blind students.

“I have been hearing concerns from many fellow parents about how COVID-19 has disrupted their child’s education and created learning gaps for students,” Corman said. “The pandemic has taught us that every child learns differently. Some students struggle with homebound education. Given the circumstances, it makes sense to give parents a stronger say in whether their kids should advance to the next grade level or repeat a grade to make up for learning loss during the pandemic.”

Senate Bill 664 would also allow parents the option to extend enrollment in special education programs for an extra year due to COVID-19. This provision would prevent students with special needs from aging out of the system at age 21 after missing out on much of the specialized attention they need due to COVID-19 disruptions.

“The pandemic has created challenges for all students, but the impacts are much more severe for students with special educational needs,” Corman said. “Allowing these students an extra year of learning could make a world of difference.”

The bill does not address the ability of students to drop out of school after reaching 18 years of age, which means many held back students could leave school after their junior year. Changing that part of the education law would force a mandate on legal adults rather than minors.

Corman’s plan would be focused only on offering parents the opportunity to hold their children back for one year. It would not prevent schools and teachers from making that decision; it would only give parents the option as well if they feel their children have fallen behind due to the pandemic.

No specific approach to grading — especially when it comes to this year’s grades — is mandated in the bill; that would likely be a decision that would be made by the Department of Education and the school. Numerous school districts around the state have reported high failure rates this school year, often attributed to the impact of COVID-19. Without intervention by the schools or the education department, those grades could follow students through their transcripts into post-secondary education.

One of the goals of the bill is to support of efforts at the local level to help students address learning loss related to the pandemic without imposing new, unfunded mandates on school districts.

Another thing this bill will not address is athletics. Under current PIAA policy, students are ineligible to participate in sports after turning 19, unless their 19th birthday is after July 1 for their final school year — a concern whenever a student has to repeat a grade. Also, students are ineligible if they have been in attendance more than eight semesters beyond the eighth grade or played four seasons beyond the eighth grade in any one form of interscholastic athletics — a situation that would occur to any high school students who repeat a year.

The PIAA would have to weigh in on these issues as the controlling agency for high school sports.

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