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Wolf admin. touts coronavirus procedures, services for families amid back-to-school season

"We want children to be in situations where they're safe and supervised by trusted adults."

  • Sam Dunklau
FILE PHOTO: Lockers line a hallway at Brashear Middle School in Pittsburgh.

 Sarah Schneider / WESA

FILE PHOTO: Lockers line a hallway at Brashear Middle School in Pittsburgh.

(Harrisburg) — The Wolf administration is trying to ease fears parents may have about sending their children back to school amid the coronavirus pandemic.

During a press conference Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s Health, Human Services and Education secretaries each pointed to plans to contain COVID-19 spread at schools, as well as child care services and after-school programs aimed at easing parental burdens during the pandemic.

State Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said her department is temporarily allowing families to create unlicensed “learning pods” among each other where children can be watched during school hours.

“We want children to be in situations where they’re safe and supervised by trusted adults, where they’re able to focus on their education and where their interactions with other people are limited,” Miller said.

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Miller said DHS is creating an online tool to help parents find after school programs. That, along with other assistance programs the department administers, is designed to help parents attend to their family’s needs.

“We’re just trying to get creative and come up with as many options as we can so that families aren’t in a position of having to quit their job to stay at home,” Miller said.

While a number of the commonwealth’s school districts are including some type of remote learning in the fall curriculum, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said his department is recommending children attend school in-person whenever possible. That follows the guidance of a June research report authored by education experts that said keeping students engaged in a remote setting would prove “challenging.”

Ultimately, though, Rivera said parents have the final say.

“Families need to be comfortable with how their children are being educated, and need to make the best decision for their families, and we stand ready to support and serve those communities as we continue through the start of the school year,” he said.

The challenge of in-person education is clear. The Susquenita School District in Perry and Dauphin counties has already had to shut down, due to positive cases of COVID-19.

There are also those who advocate for a blend of in-person and remote learning, contrary to the administration’s suggestion that in-person learning wherever possible is the way to go.

Cumberland County Superintendent David Christopher, who WITF’s SmartTalk spoke with in July, said his district is taking the blended approach rather than risk having to close every time a viral spike occurs.

“That kind of opening and closure, and opening and closure, I think would actually be more disruptive for students and teachers than potentially being online all the time,” Christopher said.

According to the state Health Department, individual districts are responsible for virus containment and enforcement practices. The department will issue recommendations if COVID-19 spread occurs within a school community, but decisions rest in local hands.

Rivera said that’s because different schools have different needs.

“Some schools and school districts can engage in social distancing practices right away. Others have to think outside the box. That’s really why we’ve adhered to guidelines so that they can personalize them around the needs of their community,” Rivera said.

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Pennsylvania’s overall positivity rate has been trending downward in recent days, an encouraging sign as students are returning to class.

She encouraged parents to pack extra hand sanitizer and face masks in their children’s backpacks, and to reassure their child when they have questions about the virus.

Despite what’s already happened to Susquenita, Levine and others are confident the majority of families can safely send their children to in-person classes given the protections in place.

“We will take whatever actions are necessary to protect the public health, but we have a very good plan for the start of school moving forward,” Levine said.

To help prevent any spread that may occur, Levine said the state is ready to test and contact trace those in school communities.

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