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Pennsylvania Teachers' Union Calls For Virtual Learning If Schools Don't Strengthen COVID Safety

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- School safety is at issue with COVID-10 causing widespread staffing shortages.

The Pennsylvania teachers' union says students should temporarily go back to virtual learning, unless safety measures improve.

Everybody wants to keep kids in school safely, but can it be done? Doctors say yes, teachers say no.

"Schools are not safe to open and there is really no quality of learning going on," American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg said.

The president of the Pennsylvania teachers' union says dramatic staffing shortages in schools due to COVID are creating chaos.

"The kids' learning is suffering because they're not able to run a quality, efficient program," Steinberg said.

The AFT wants mitigation reinstated in schools. That includes negotiated vaccination mandates, masking requirements using KN95s or greater, and asymptomatic testing regardless of vaccination status.

If that doesn't happen, the AFT says in-person learning should pause for two weeks and students would go back to virtual learning.

"We want to do everything we can to keep our kids in schools, but we also want to make sure our teachers feel protected and feel safe," said Dr. Carmeron Webb with the White House COVID Response Team.

Webb says Philadelphia is on a priority list to get more federal resources to improve testing.

"I can't speak to the specific situation in Philadelphia," Webb said.

But he did say there will be more FEMA sites opening in Philly.

"We don't need to be terrified of this virus," CHOP Policy Lab Executive Director David Rubin said.

On the medical front, Rubin says the Policy Lab at CHOP has revised its school guidelines because the less dangerous omicron variant is now so widespread.

It says students and staff who have COVID can return to class in five days and testing isn't necessary. Also, those exposed and without symptoms should be allowed to stay in school.

"So having masks in school is still a significant barrier to transmission, but we accept that there is going to be some transmission but that it's more important at this phase to keep kids in school," Rubin said.

The teachers' union takes issue with the Policy Lab and says it's ignoring science.

The governor's office didn't react specifically to the teachers' union but said masking is a proven and simple way to keep kids in school without interruption.

Meanwhile, at least 46 Philadelphia schools are going virtual next week due to staffing shortages.

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