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OPINION: PASS Scholarships: A Crucial Investment in Pennsylvania’s Future

At the heart of education is a promise: the promise of opportunity, growth, and a brighter future.

Yet, for countless students in Pennsylvania’s consistently lowest-performing schools, this promise remains elusive, trapped behind the barriers of geographic limitations, economic restrictions, or limited access to quality instruction.

The reality in many parts of the state, like Philadelphia, is that students and parents desperately want better educational opportunities for their kids. Parents with students in the bottom 15% performing public schools in Pennsylvania often grapple with challenges that hinder the delivery of quality education. These challenges can include overcrowded classrooms, an increased presence of violence, and a need for more educators.

The House Republican Policy Committee recently convened to hear about school choice from eager parents and educators speaking on behalf of students looking for real change to a broken and outdated education system.

The change they advocated for was the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) scholarship program, a bipartisan policy initiative that would serve as a transformative solution granting families the opportunity to select the educational curriculum most suitable for their child’s needs. Access to these scholarship dollars and more educational choices further empowers parents as they take an active role in their child’s education, fostering a sense of ownership and partnership between families and schools.

Introducing competition and encouraging innovation, PASS scholarships will be a catalyst for positive change. Students will have the freedom to leave underperforming schools instead of being trapped in a one-size-fits-all, government-run system. Schools, both private and public, will be competing to attract students by improving curriculum, engaging parents, creating a 21st century learning environment and prioritizing the well-being of their students.

Special interests who oppose the program have argued falsely that PASS scholarships divert resources away from struggling schools, exacerbating their challenges. The truth is that funding for a PASS scholarship program would come from a separate state account while also preserving full funding for traditional K-12 public education.

At one of the Republican Policy Committee hearings, a mother from Philadelphia made a point to mention she is a Democrat and this issue goes beyond party lines. She testified that, if implemented, this program would force schools to “up their game…and hold their schools accountable.” By embracing competition in education, we create a system where schools are driven to excel, breaking the cycle of underperforming institutions, and where the students are the ultimate winners, gaining access to more diverse and innovative learning opportunities.

Pennsylvania has a unique opportunity to lead the way in innovation in education by embracing PASS scholarships as a powerful and life-changing solution for those who need it most.

As the Pennsylvania House of Representatives returns to session and legislators fill the capitol, they have an opportunity to pass a bipartisan school choice initiative that will have a positive generational impact. Democrat Gov. Josh Shapiro promised to support the program during his campaign and now is the time to deliver on that promise for the next generation of Pennsylvania.

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A Holocaust Survivor Talks to Students at Barrack Hebrew Academy

When Emil Fish talked to students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he spoke from memory. His own.

Fish, 87, is a survivor of the Holocaust, and he looks for opportunities to share his story with groups around the Delaware Valley. He told the Barrack Academy students they would be the last generation to hear from the Holocaust survivors in person and it would be up to them to tell others about that horrific event in the future.

“Faith in Hashem (God), physical strength, having money, knowing the right people and the goodness of strangers” helped his family survive the Holocaust, he said. “Among them were many, many who were not Jewish.”

Fish lived with his Hasidic family in Bardejov, a small town in eastern Slovakia where a third of the population was Jewish. Before World War II, Czechoslovakia was a democratic country. But it was rife with antisemitism, and Fish was bullied at public school.

After World War II began, the Nazis ordered Jews in Bardejov rounded up to be sent to Auschwitz. However, his family was among those allowed to stay because the Nazis deemed his father’s business, which was groceries, lumber, and railroad ties, essential.

Some 90 percent of the town’s Jews were sent to Auschwitz on the “first official transport,” and most did not return. Two years later, the Nazis ordered all the Jews to one area “so it would be easier to arrest us and finish us forever,” Fish explained.  His family moved to a town in the western part of the country.

Emil Fish with his mother and sister. His sister refused to wear a yellow armband the Nazis required for Jews.

Early one morning, his mother went to get fresh bread. As she was crossing the railroad tracks, a Gestapo officer stopped her and accused her of being a Jew. A railroad guard who knew her convinced him she was a Gentile. At that point, his parents knew they had to leave. They found refuge at a farm and hid in a barn attic.

They stayed there for a few months until it became too dangerous. A guide took them to another farmhouse in a small village.

But the farmer who “never had any money before” went to a tavern, drank, and bragged that he had money from hiding Jews.

They had to leave again and hired another guide to take them to the nearest train station through a forest. A forest ranger they encountered shot at their guide as he ran away, but Fish’s father gave the ranger money and his mother’s fur coat. The ranger let them go.

At the train station, there were German soldiers. The children acted like peasants as instructed by their parents and the soldiers ignored them.

After disembarking in Bratislava, they went to an apartment. The owner notified the Gestapo leading to their arrest.

“We were sure they were going to shoot us and dump us in the river,” he said.

The Germans then separated his father from the rest of the family and sent him to Buchenwald.

“That was the scariest moment of my life,” said Fish.

His mother, sister, and Fish were put into a cattle car “packed like sardines” and headed to Auschwitz. “There was no food, no water, no sanitation facilities on the train,” he said. The tracks going to Auschwitz had been bombed, and the train was diverted to Bergen-Belsen, another concentration camp. Fish was 9 years old.

Soldiers yelled at them. There were German shepherd dogs and floodlights, he remembered.

“Bergen-Belsen was a scary place, getting worse and worse every day. There were piles of thousands of corpses stacked in front of his barracks at the camp.” Fish saw people die daily of starvation and diseases, including typhus, “right before our eyes.”

Emil Fish with Holocaust Education and Reflection Club officers (from left) Talia Willner, Ellie LaVoe and Eden Singer.

“We had to wake up every morning, stand in a roll call, and wait for officers to make sure nobody escaped,” he said. “Many times people died standing…Surviving was a daily challenge.”

On April 15, 1945, British soldiers liberated the camp. Unfortunately, some of the desperate and hungry died from overeating or eating the wrong food afterward. “It was chaos.”

Fish’s family made their way back to Bardejov, and amazingly, Fish’s father had also survived. Only 10 percent of Slovakian Jews survived the Holocaust. Fish went to Israel to study, and his family went to Canada.

His parents insisted he join them in Canada and the family then settled in Los Angeles in 1955. Fish now divides his time between Los Angeles and Lower Merion, where his daughter lives.

“I never had any intentions of ever visiting Bardejov, but my children– I married and had three kids—insisted on going on a heritage tour.” So in 2005 two of his three kids went with him and his late wife to his hometown. Fish is also the grandfather of 12.

He had intended to visit the cemetery.

“What I found broke my heart,” he said. “The Jewish cemetery was overgrown with weeds.” The synagogue was a hardware store and the Jewish school had become a school of commerce.

“There were no Jews living there any longer and no evidence of our rich and vibrant past,” he said. He used his own money and started a foundation to restore the cemetery and build a memorial for the 3,381 Jews from the town who were killed in the Holocaust “to make sure they remember and to make sure this never, never happens again. I would not let Hitler win.”

Answering questions from students, Fish said he did not lose his faith because, “Jewish history is full of tragedies.”

“I don’t blame God for what happened. I blame human beings.”

“There is no Holocaust survivor that doesn’t think about the Holocaust every day because it affects you so much,” he said.

Fish studied engineering at the University of Southern California and was hired by Bechtel Corp. He went on to become a land developer and a retirement home businessman. In 2005, he gave up most of his business to focus on projects, including writing and lecturing about the Holocaust. He also founded the Fish School of Holocaust Studies at Yeshiva University.

In 2010, former President Barack Obama appointed Fish to the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, on which he still serves.

The parents of two Barrack Academy students whose relatives were from Bardejov came to hear Fish’s lecture and speak with him. He remembered their relatives and greeted them warmly.

Philadelphia resident Gregg Kanter said his father-in-law, Marcus Rosenberg, was from Berdejov.

“It’s the next level of Jewish geography,” joked Deena Kobell, also of Philadelphia, whose grandfather, Adolf Leiner, was also a survivor from Bardejov.

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PA Ranks Third in Depression Among Children, And Closing Classrooms Could Make It Worse

Pennsylvania has the third-highest rate of major depressive episodes (MDE) among children in the nation, according to a health advocacy organization. And mental health professionals are linking childrens’ health problems to the decision to close classrooms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Mental Health America, at least 13 percent of children from ages 12 to 17 reported having a major depressive episode (MDE) in the last year. Pennsylvania was ranked third with nearly 12 percent. In addition, the total number of youth experiencing an MDE increased by 206,000 nationwide since last year.

Closed classrooms have proven to be an academic disaster, according to test results and education experts. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency for children’s mental health in October 

“I think that we are in the deep end of a mental health crisis, and I think the COVID-19 pandemic is only making it worse,” said AACAP President Warren Yiu Kee Ng. And Children’s hospitals reported a 38 percent increase of mental-health emergency room visits in the third quarter of 2021 compared to 2020, the Children’s Hospital Association reports.

Lauren H., a parent from Media who asked that her last name not be used, said her two-year-old son experiences some of that school avoidance as he navigates his first year of preschool.

“I don’t want to go back to school. I’m not safe there,” Lauren’s son told her. When asked why he didn’t feel safe, he explained to his mother that he needed to be a “superhero and wear a mask so he doesn’t get sick or make other people sick.”

Lauren explained the constant shutdowns for quarantine are also making it hard for her son to adjust to the separation.

“My little guy is 2 and started preschool for the first time,” Lauren said. “It’s now about halfway through the year and he’s still a mess with separation anxiety because we can’t get a consistent schedule. School shuts down all the time for quarantine, which as a working parent, is an absolute nightmare, too. He’s a pretty confident little dude so it’s heartbreaking. And fortunately, my job is supporting me. If they weren’t, there is no way I’d be able to work.”

“It’s hard to regulate your emotions when you’re feeling anxious,” Inna Leiter Psy.D., child and adolescent

Inna Leiter

psychologist and director for the Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, told Delaware Valley Journal. “I’m an anxiety expert, but I’m definitely seeing higher rates of anxiety with regard to going to school. So school anxiety and school avoidance was always something I specialized in, but now I’m seeing higher rates of that because kids are scared for their safety at school and their health.”

Leiter said that parents may see behaviors like biting and hitting in younger kids, who are going to be more likely to struggle more with emotion regulation and have it be exhibited in behaviors like lashing out.

“When you’re scared it’s harder to regulate other emotions like frustration. So, frustration tolerance is going to be harder when you’re trying to regulate your emotions when you’re already feeling anxious. I think that exacerbates the problem too.”

Zora M. Wolfe

Zora M. Wolfe, EdD, director of K-12 Educational Leadership and Instructional Technology Programs for Widener University, said it’s not just younger grade-level students that are struggling to adjust.

“We are seeing this across the board,” Wolfe said. “So, not only are they adjusting to different expectations, in a sense, they almost jumped a couple of years beyond the last time they were in a school. So, we’re seeing high school students behaving like middle school students since they’ve actually lost those years in that middle school setting.

“So we have high school teachers talking about, ‘Oh my goodness, my freshmen are acting like middle schoolers.’ And there are problems in the bathrooms and those types of things. But the reality is those students haven’t been in middle school so they’ve lost those years in that setting. They’ve lost the learning that comes with being in those settings and trying to figure out what those social interactions look like with their teachers and their peers.”

Leiter explained the best thing parents can do to help their kids adjust during this difficult time is to have a plan in place.

“I think it’s smart to have a plan,” Leiter said. “I think you should assume your classroom at some point is going to maybe get shut down and to have a solid plan in place that you discuss with the child at a neutral time, not when it’s actually happening, but at a time when school’s still going on, of collaborating with that child for what that plan could look like for the days when they’re going to be virtual.”

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Souderton Parents Protest Mask Mandate

A group of Souderton Area School District (SASD) parents protested outside the district administration building this week, opposing the mask mandate for students, teachers, and staff.

Kaitlin Derstine, with Soudy Strong Conservatives, said the group feels betrayed by the district’s change in policy because they believed once the statewide mask mandate was struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, SASD would reverse its mask mandate as well.

Derstine says she is very disappointed that the school board members her group worked to help elect did not stand up to administrators and oppose the mask policy.

“In August our board had voted for mask choice for the whole district,” said Derstine. “Then the (state) mandate came out the first day of school.” Parents got an email saying the district would be requiring masks, she said.  “And then we had to fight to get an exemption form.”

“All the while the understanding was when the mask mandate lifts, we will get back to mask choice,” Derstine added.

Even though COVID cases have increased, Derstine says she believes parents should have the choice of whether their children should have to wear a mask for the school day. She pointed out other districts, like nearby North Penn, which has had strict mask and quarantine policies, also has COVID cases that are “exploding through the roof.”

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. told Face The Nation this week, “Cloth masks aren’t going to provide a lot of protection, that’s the bottom line.

“This is an airborne illness. We now understand that, and a cloth mask is not going to protect you from a virus that spreads through airborne transmission. It could protect better through droplet transmission, something like the flu, but not something like this coronavirus,” Gottlieb said.”

And a recent report by the BBC said it was “inconclusive” whether masks in schools stop the spread of COVID.

If district officials had told parents in August that they would require masks, parents could have planned accordingly.

“All of us parents (who oppose masks) would have found other options for our kids,” said Derstine. “We would pursue other avenues, formed ‘pods.’ Of course, the district didn’t want that because that would have cost them money.”

Tax dollars per student would have gone to support the learning pods instead of the school district, she said.

Or like-minded parents would have signed their children up for an online charter school, which the district would also have to fund, she said.

She noted that her son went to summer school last summer without a mask and there were no problems. When their kids are sick, parents will keep them at home, she said.

SASD Superintendent Frank Gallagher did not respond to a request for comment.

“We are demanding medical freedom,” said Derstine. “We are demanding parent choice.”

She is also concerned that teachers, the school nurse, and administrators are busy tracing contacts of students who have COVID, rather than educating kids.

“That is not their job,” said Derstine. “That’s not what we, the taxpayers, pay them to do.”

Some school districts in the area and around the country have been closing schools in the wake of increased COVID cases with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, which has caused staff shortages.


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Back to School PAC Now Fighting School Quarantines

While Pennsylvania school districts are open again for the time being, students who test positive for COVID-19 and other students who come into close contact with them are being kept at home for up to 10 days in quarantine.

“There are thousands of children sitting at home with no instruction waiting for their days to pass,” said Beth Ann Rosica, executive director of Back to School PA PAC, a group that funded candidates in the November school board elections who believed in keeping kids in school.

“If kids are vaccinated the quarantine can be for a lesser amount of time,” said Rosica. “Most of the time students must stay home for 10 days if they test positive for COVID, But sometimes it’s seven days and sometimes it’s five days. There is no rhyme or reason to what’s happening.”

Langley Barnes, whose son Jordan, 7, is in second grade in the West Chester Area School District, said he’s been quarantined once so far, the week before Thanksgiving. Now she fears there will be more quarantine weeks as the school year goes on.

“I’m a full-time, single parent,” said Barnes. “I’m lucky that I work at home and have a super-flexible job.”

But it’s difficult for her to teach Jordan at home. He has learning differences and an individualized education plan (IEP).

Being at home rather than at school is “hard for his development,” she said. It is also very difficult for the second grader to learn even at school with teachers wearing masks because he has “auditory processing issues,” she said. Having a school year with remote learning last year did not help.

“He’s really behind and the emotional toll is hard for both of us,” she said. “He realizes he’s behind his friends (in reading). That’s tough with a 7-year-old. He doesn’t understand why.”

Meredith Mercatante’s fourth-grade twins have been home from school in the Haverford Township School District for 10 days after first one, then the other, tested positive for COVID. She had to push the school to let them log into their classrooms on Zoom. And Mercatante is frustrated that the district required her girls to be home for 10 days when they were feeling fine for the last five days.

“I reached out to see if they could come back if they tested negative,” she said. But the answer was no. The district is following the state Health Department protocol, which is from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“They were really home for a week when they were perfectly fine,” she said.

At Fox Chase Elementary School in Philadelphia, parents were told by the principal, Rob Caroselli, on Thursday that as of Friday unvaccinated children could not attend that school for 10 days for a quarantine, however unvaccinated kids could come to class.

Christina Clark, a spokeswoman for the district, said, “There were multiple days of potential COVID-19 exposure during lunch periods (at that school). In response, we were instructed by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health that the entire school will need to quarantine for 10 days. Per health official guidance, those who are fully vaccinated are not required to quarantine and can therefore come to school during this time with proof of vaccination. Once this quarantine period has ended, all students regardless of vaccination status will be able to attend Fox Chase School in-person.”

“These kids have no computers,” said Rosica. “This is such discrimination. It’s horrendous.” She urged people to call Mayor Jim Kenney’s office to complain.

Rosica said, “We’re continuing to push back, with school districts and county departments of health. We’re trying to encourage parents to be vocal and make comments at school board meetings. This isn’t okay. It’s not over. There are schools still closing.”

“For us at Back to School PA it’s this issue of kids not always being in school,” said Rosica. “We are fearful as cases rise over the cold and flu season, we’re going to see more school closures.”

“It is a big deal what we’re seeing, the learning loss,” she said. “These kids are already so far behind.” If they are at home they are “doing nothing but getting further and further behind.”

For example, math class and foreign language classes are sequential, so it’s hard for them to catch up if the students have missed 10 days of instruction in those subjects.

“Last year when all this stuff happened they had the remote option to Zoom in,” Rosica said. “At least they had something to get instruction with.” But many kids are “quarantined for weeks at home and they have nothing.”

Barnes is also worried.

“Second grade is a pivotal year (for reading),” she said. “We have a neighborhood gang of kids, so that has helped (socially),” she said.

But the pandemic has clearly affected this generation of children and not just educationally.

“I’ve seen kids turn into germophobes,” she said. “We have failed our children.”


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