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Weekly Updates

Wittman’s Weekly: Lessons from my Dad

My dad is the most impactful role model in my life. I think back fondly to the times growing up when he would sit me down on the tailgate of our green truck to listen to a story, an explanation of what was going on in politics back then, or a funny anecdote he thought I would enjoy. But no matter what the subject, I knew when I sat on the back of that truck, it was my job to listen. I’m glad to say that was one of the most memorable lessons he ever taught me: you have to listen.  

I have made it a priority to listen to you throughout my service as your representative in Congress. This year has been a challenging year. In the face of growing uncertainty due the pandemic, it seems there are a lot more questions than answers with what “our new normal” will look like throughout the rest of the year and in the longer term. We must adapt and innovate to our new reality, by investing in our families, care providers, and technology. Here are a couple of actions I’ve taken to help make our future a bit more certain.

Last week, I wrote a letter to Congressional Leadership requesting greater flexibility for families utilizing Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA). Many families use a FSA for dependent care or childcare and since many programs have either closed or been canceled, parents could lose these dollars at the end of the year. My letter urges leadership to let families using FSAs to withdraw or rollover these funds, which will allow families to better manage their finances and care for their children during these difficult times.

In addition to this letter, I joined a group of 41 colleagues in signing a letter that encourages Congress to provide additional federal relief for child care providers as lawmakers weigh additional COVID-19 relief legislation. A national survey of child care providers noted that up to half of the country’s child care capacity could permanently disappear because of closures and lost revenue due to COVID-19. In this letter, my colleagues and I reemphasize the importance of supporting child care providers in the next relief package to ensure that when Americans are back at work, child care providers are equipped to rejoin the workforce as well. 

And while these actions will help those with younger children, there also is much uncertainty surrounding the reopening of K-12 schools this fall.  As the son and husband of educators, I am keenly aware of how important our teachers and school staff in our student’s lives and the value they provide. My wife, Kathryn, will begin her 41st year of teaching at Cople Elementary next month, and this year promises to be both different and challenging.

It is clear that the Coronavirus remains prevalent throughout our nation, and we must balance the educational needs of our children with the health and safety of our children, teachers, administrators, and families. This is a dynamic situation that requires constant monitoring, reevaluation, and modernization. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), health officials, and governments at all levels are not only monitoring the risks that reopening schools pose to children but also the risks to teachers, staff, and their families. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association recently released a statement noting, “Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible. For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.  A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”

I have long believed that our education system serves our children best when the federal footprint is reduced, and local control is restored. I believe localities will need to make the best decisions for their residents based on the most up-to-date and accurate data metrics in their districts, and the state and federal governments should be there to provide assistance as requested to get children back to school as quickly and safely as possible. To that end, I am committed to doing everything I can to support our localities as they work to safely resume in-person learning.

I recently hosted a First District school superintendent listening session to hear, firsthand, about the challenges and potential solutions to ensuring our students receive the best possible education this fall. Moreover, it was an opportunity to hear from the school district leadership on how the federal government can best assist the safe return of our students. While I heard several note-worthy obstacles facing the school districts’ efforts to educate students this fall, one overwhelming issue consistently arose: broadband connectivity. For years, I have advocated for enhanced investments in our internet infrastructure, but the Coronavirus has only emphasized the digital divide, and as it applies to students, the homework gap.

In March, I reached out to President Trump and congressional leadership demanding robust funding for rural broadband in the CARES Act. The CARES Act allocated $13.5 billion for formula-grants to states for elementary and secondary education which allows for coronavirus-response activities, including purchasing educational technology to support online learning for all students.

Also, I introduced the bipartisan Serving Rural America Act. The legislation would create a pilot grant program at the FCC, authorizing $500 million over five years to expand broadband service to unserved areas of the country. Under the act, grants will be awarded to eligible applicants that will consist of a partnership between an internet service provider and a locality (such as a county or planning district commission). Moreover, the program prioritizes the funding to areas without 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload capabilities. The program will help bring high-speed internet to many of the approximately 19 million Americans, the majority of whom are in rural communities — thus, bringing them into the 21st-century economy and educational reality.

I am continually amazed and in awe of the commitment and sacrifice our nation's educators, school staff and childcare providers make on a daily basis. Their dedication does not go unrecognized—the positive influence and selflessness they possess is invaluable. Now, more than ever, we must support our teachers and the next generation of our students.  We must support our schools and care providers as they aim to reopen as soon as possible, but only when they are able to do so safely. The Commonwealth and the Federal government should commit to supporting our localities with what they need to achieve. 

Another life lesson my dad taught me is there is always work to do. Our work is not done – not by a long-shot – and I want to hear from you. If you have any ideas, questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to my office.