Steve Letavic
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Posted Thursday, August 27, 2020

Secretary Levine Press Conference

Today, Secretary Levine from the Department of Health, Secretary Miller from the Department of Human Services, and Secretary Rivera from the Department of Education held a press conference to update families in Pennsylvania on child-care options, remind parents and guardians of healthy habits to keep children and families safe, and provide helpful information about programs and resources that are available to families who are struggling economically, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

 

 

Today, Secretary Miller stated the following:

  • She is proud to serve this Administration to meet the government’s responsibilities during this economic crisis.
  • She relayed that she has a 4-year-old daughter, and she recognizes that this is an inquisitive time in a child’s development.
  • She also recognizes that this has been a very difficult time for families that have been unable to answer their children’s questions.
  • She emphasized that the governments are listening and seeing what the families of Pennsylvania are telling them.
  • Unfortunately, she’s unable to tell anyone what can be expected over the next 6-months.
  • The Department of Human Services (DHS) remains committed to helping families overcome the myriad of other challenges, among those they have faced in the pandemic.
  • There are additional resources that are available to Pennsylvanians who reach out and ask for help.
  • Today, she wanted to speak directly to parents, grandparents, foster parents, and care takers.
  • DHS has developed options that will ease the burdens for families with school-age children.
  • Licensed and regulatory childcare has always been an option for children up until the age of 15.
  • However, those children have been expected to be in school for the bulk of the day.
  • Because DHS recognized that families need flexibilities, the Department relaxed requirements in order to create flexibilities as follows:
    • Families may create collectives, or learning pods, which consist of other trusted families in the community to supervise children and provide childcare during school hours.
      • There is no requirement for the learning pods to be licensed. 
      • DHS has posted a list of recommendations for those considering this option.
      • The Department asks that both parents and those that are going to be providing the learning pods, stay up to date with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
      • DHS does not want parents to be forced to quit their jobs to stay at home with their children, which is why they created the learning pods.
    • DHS has collaborated with organizations across Pennsylvania, such as United Way and YMCA, to provide part-day programs for children.
      • These part-day programs will be provided in commercial settings, with the same overall goal as the learning pods.
      • These programs are not certified under child care regulations.  
      • However, the programs do have to follow certain criteria.
      • The part-day programs have to develop health and safety plans, and also comply with Child Protective Services Laws that require that staff have background clearance checks.
      • DHS is working on a tool for their website for information about these part-day school-age programs to be found in different geographic regions.
      • Non-licensed providers should notify DHS if they want to offer the program, and the Department will post the contact information for people to find.
      • The Department will also start collecting information today.
    •  DHS recommends that parents enroll their children in certified programs.
      • There is a routine oversight and statewide childcare regulations for being enrolled in certified programs.
      • However, these programs accommodate students with their school work, but it ultimately depends on the individual provider – so parents are recommended to speak with the provider of the program before actually enrolling their child.
      • Parents can find certified child care in Pennsylvania at www.findchildcare.pa.gov  or by contacting their local Early Learning Resource Center (ELRC)  at www.raiseyourstar.org.
  • Everyone has a responsibility to protect children from child abuse and neglect, and there was a 40-50% decline in ChildLine reporting since schools closed in the Spring.
  • There were approximately 39,000 calls made to the ChildLine in 2018, with one-third of those being reported by school employees.
  • There has been a 10-12% decrease in ChildLine reports compared to the same months this time last year.
  • She reemphasized how important it is that the flexibilities for school-age child care opportunities to be created, in order for other members of a community to help protect children.
  • A person doesn’t have to be a mandated reporter in order to make a call to report child abuse or neglect.
  • All calls are anonymous.
  • Symptoms include numerous unexplained injuries, anxiety or inadequacy, poor communication, impulsive control, flinching, cruelty to animals or other, and/or fear of their parent and/or caregiver.
  • Trained welfare professionals and law enforcement will follow up with calls to and collect information, and will intervene if necessary.
  • As DHS administers public assistance programs, the programs have helped 3.3 million Pennsylvanians so far this year.
  • The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic caused their programs to be even more crucial during this challenging time.
  • Their programs include Medicaid, CHIP, TANF, SNAP, and LIHEAP.
  • SNAP helps expand a family’s tight budget to in order to have groceries in their home.
  • For those families that have lost health coverage or are uninsured, may qualify for Medicaid and CHIP for routine services and prescriptions.
    • There is no special enrollment time, so individuals are able to apply throughout the year.
    • There are income limits for individuals applying for Medicaid, but all children can qualify for CHIP.
  • There are other additional programs available for those who are struggling to pay their bills during this pandemic.
  • These are all basic needs that we all have, so there is no shame in asking for help.
  • DHS will continue to support Pennsylvania families during this public health crisis and as the economic crisis evolves.

 

Today, Secretary Levine stated the following:

  • She echoed Secretary Miller’s comments that the government strives to create a healthy Pennsylvania for all.
  • This school year will look very different from other years, but it’s what we need to do for children in order for them to have the best chance to returning to school in-person.
  • Parents need to add or do these key things before having their child return to school:
    • An extra cloth mask;
    • Hand sanitizer;
    • Showing children how to wash their hands for 20 seconds;
    • Remind children of the importance of avoiding touching surfaces then their faces; and
    • Pediatricians should be seen in order to make sure that their child is up to date immunizations – especially their flu vaccine during COVID-19.
  • If a child is sick, it’s vital to keep them home from school – especially if symptoms are similar to COVID symptoms.
  • We must all lead by example, because we also play an important role in helping children make sense of what they hear.
  • It’s important to speak calmly and be reassuring about how children should handle COVID in order to minimize their anxiety and fear.
  • It’s also important that parents pay attention to what their children are seeing and hearing on the news and social media, as too much information could lead to anxious thoughts.
  • Whether you believe it or not, your actions can impact whether or not children can remain in the classroom.
  • The State has made efforts regarding laws, mandates, and orders for safety, but it ultimately comes down to the choices you make every day.
  • We are all in this together, and we share a collective responsibility to stop the spread of the COVID.

 

Today, Secretary Rivera stated the following:

  • We know that the 2020-2021 school year will look different than any other school year in our state system, as it differs within community-to-community, district-to-district, and student-to-student.
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has created resources to help school leaders make decisions on everyone returning to school.
  • PDE and their partners are equally focused on other supports services that are also provided to students when they are in school.
  • Schools are more than classrooms with academic instruction, they provide social and emotional growth, engagement with students and adults, help develop a sense of teamwork, and develop resilience.
  • There will be resources released from PDE for both students and staff wellness during COVID, and they will continue to be updated in the coming weeks.
  • There have been great concerns for students with special needs, and PDE has made resources available to support these students and what they need in order to adapt to their educational plans.
  • PDE provided $20 million of Federal funding for educational funding for those with disabilities, as they encounter additional challenges for the new year.
  • Meals have also been reliable through the National School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program.
  • By PDE working together and using Federal waivers, they were able to serve communities with more than 24,000,000 meals for students to maintain access to life-sustaining nutrition.
  • A letter was sent to Secretary Purdue at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to request that they extend the flexibility in these programs throughout the pandemic, as they have benefited multiple children and families by securing them access to meals.
  • PDE prepared schools for the new year by providing guidance and grant funding and allowed local school leaders to make specific decisions on the reopening of their schools.
  • Parents and caregivers are vital to this dialogue and he said that it’s best for them to voice their concerns and questions to their local school leaders on what they can expect and how to engage this year.
  • Education communities are remaining focused on the health and safety of students, but families need to be comfortable about how children are being educated in order to make the best decision for their families.

 

Questions asked to and answered by Secretary Levine:

 

  • Is it true that the case trajectory in Pennsylvania has gone down?
    • Yes, it has decreased significantly.

 

  • If we see an uptick in cases for kids and the schools they attend, is there any plan to do targeted mitigation in schools – similarly to the way industries were handled in Pennsylvania? And in would there be a situation where schooling would be entirely remote across the entire State?
    • It’s impossible for me to predict the future, but we have plans in place and we’re continuing all of our containment effort. If we find that there is a positive case, we will get that result through our lab, and from there our case investigators will start contacting people to get information about their symptoms and location. Then our contact tracers will notify their contacts in order for them to quarantine. We will continue to do the same thing in schools, as the Department of Health (DOH) and County Municipal Health Departments will be in charge of that process. That’s why we’ve been working on the guidelines for Counties that have low, moderate, and substantial cases. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you one way or another what will happen, but I can promise you that we will do whatever we can to protect the health of our students. We have a good plan as we move forward by working with PDE and following the situation on the ground.

 

  • The Department of Health is saying that a school cannot say how much cases are in a school district. Why is that? And how does that violate HIPPA by disclosing the number of cases in district without releasing any personal information?
    • The school district is being notified by the parents that their child is positive with COVID, because we might not have the information. We aren’t going to comment on any specific report as it comes out because we’re looking at our data and making recommendations in our report through our lab analysis. There was a slight delay when going through that new process, but it is happening rapidly now.

 

  • Will the Department of Health of the Pennsylvania Department of Education use something similar that DHS uses in tracking outbreaks in daycare centers, and providing public disclosure for known cases when coming back to schools? And going forward, how will the State study how school openings have been effective? 
    • The school do not contact the Department of Health, that information comes from the lab test and we will follow our same exact plan. There is no requirement for them to tell us, because we will find out through a different mechanism. We are working with PDE to communicate all of that information by evaluating our data really closely in terms of trends and how the school year progresses.

 

  • It will be the State’s contact tracing system that will allow you to identify if school is the source of an outbreak, correct?
    • Yes, we will use the same case investigation and contact tracing system.

 

  • Do you have update on what the current turn-around time is for case investigations?
    • It’s approximately within 24-48 hours, but it has been 24 hours in most cases.

 

  • Will the State be able to maintain the number of contact tracers that are needed?
    • Yes, we’re developing that now in order to maintain those. 

 

Questions asked to and answered by Secretary Rivera:

 

  • When you released plan for districts with different learning models, did that include drafting plans for school shutdowns? Parents are trying to give their children some sense of “normalcy,” and shutdowns don’t provide that.
    • When the pandemic hit and schools shut down in March, PDE, DOH, Superintendents and school leaders engaged in a level-surface dialogue to determine what that would look like. We engaged the first part as our mathematical report looked deeply around what the data and research that was dictated, including the data in both our country and others. We then made that information available to schools to start planning. With the health and safety plans from DOH, we created guidelines that encouraged school districts to engage as the community’s voice, submit their plan to the school board for review/adoption and post it online, all before submitting it to PDE. Due to the volatility of COVID as we are planning around school openings, we are encouraging every parent to look at that health and safety plan to learn about the school’s mitigation efforts, but also to look at the instructional opportunities – depending on the model that they chose. However, we have to realize that we may have to shift and adjust over time, which is why many school leaders have forecasted that and documented that in their plan. That’s why we’re here today. The volatility of this virus’s transmission can happen and change how the data evolves, but it’s our best action to mitigate the virus and get students back to. We have to focus on the root cause of this and keep families safe at home and throughout their communities.

 

  • Regarding the mathematical report, you recommended – based on findings – that schools use hybrid schedules to limit transmission, but has PDE considered the variety of other care settings? Even if the hybrid option limits transmission in schools, can we confident about the same in the community?
    • Both the report and guidance have identified that social conditions are different in both communities and geographic areas across the State. What was accounted for when mitigating the transmission of COVID, are life circumstances. However, there is no substitute for due diligence of the family, ensuring that their children are being mindful, and looking closely at some symptoms around COVID. What we are providing is one tool in the tool kit to create a holistic environment. We wouldn’t consider our guidance as standalone guidance, but we recommend that parents do so in combination with guidance from DOH, DHS, and the CDC. Everything that we are doing collectively, is providing the tools and resources that should be utilized to help all families.

 

  • Are you confident that the hybrid model will be the best way to limit transmission of the virus?
    • Some of our families just started school this week, and we’re seeing this model for the first time in practice. Based on the science, data, research, and partnerships with other agencies, we’ve been tracking this model with the way that other states and countries are implementing them in real-time. We will continue to learn from others that are putting these strategies in place practically.

 

  • Do you know why some school districts are able to follow a hybrid mode, but have chosen to go fully remote instead? And are you lobbying for kids to return to school in-person?
    • From a public health perspective, in-person instruction is the best-case scenario to address all children’s needs, but the data around the transmission of COVID for students are set by the data. An important factor in why schools are making decisions is based on the entire school’s potential transmission of the virus. Schools have to consider the potential transmission rates among their staff, the ability and resources to maintain a clean and healthy environment, and also look out for the students’ families – as many students also go home to multi-generational households. We are looking at one specific data set, because kids don’t live in a vacuum or bubble, they engage within their community. Students are just one factor, but there are other things that have to be considered.

 

  • What would your recommendation be, or what resources would you provide to parents, in order to advise them on helping their teenage children who already disliked learning in-person – now that some of those teens are learning either partly or fully-remote this year?
    • It’s important for me to share that the 3 of us (Secretary Levine, Secretary Miller, and himself) are also parents, and we’ve been discussing public health, public education, and safety considerations. However, we’ve never taken a parent approach. There are many decisions that are made day-by-day that have implications for my family. But what we want people to understand is that we fully know that the mitigation efforts we recommend are based on science and data, and we know that they are difficult. We would never want to say that these are easy conditions, it’s a reminder to all of us that these recommendations are not the fault of government or those who are looking to serve the community, it’s the fault of a pandemic. We’re learning more each and every day. As the Secretary of PED, I want my daughter to go back to school. But as a parent, I want her to be safe and healthy. The percentages look different when they’re put in front of you, and you’re told to protect all of them to be healthy and safe. There are efforts that we have to think outside the box on. My biggest statement would be for parents when they are looking at alternative methods for instruction or engagement, our main focus should be on the health and safety of students. If we start to bring down those numbers, is the only way we will be able to get back to a “new normal” and get into schools.

 

  • What are schools required to do? Will the State be the one to decide if a school needs to be shut down? 
    • Face coverings are mandatory, per Governor Wolf and the Secretary of Health. Social distancing of a least 6 feet apart is a strong recommendation, as well as cleaning and maintaining physical spaces. We’ve provided a great deal of detail on what to consider, but ultimately, we know that school districts are as diverse and dynamic as the communities that they live in. Some have engaged in social practices right away, while others had to think outside the box.

 

  • Are schools required to notify staff and parents of a positive COVID case? And what details will be disclosed?
    • As cases are identified, we’ve made it a point to share that both DOH and PDE are working closely to guide schools through practices on how to handle a case when it’s been identified. Although this is novel Coronavirus, school districts have planned for years through their safety plans on how to address illnesses and viruses as they’ve transpired. Superintendents can say what they’ve done in the past and how they communicated those cases then, will be very similar to this. They will be employing those safety plans that are already in place, only now it will be in response to COVID.

 

Questions asked to and answered by Secretary Miller:

 

  • At what age can a parent leave a child home? Does DHS have an age recommendation or is there a law in place?
    • There is no law stating at what age a child is safe at home. That would really depend on the child, their maturity, how long the parent is away for, and many other factors. DHS does not have a set age limit to give as a recommendation. We understand what parents’ concerns are, particularly as we are working out of economic insecurity, and that’s why we’re trying to provide more flexibilities for parents to have more options. The learning pod may make the most sense for parents if they’re unable to find or afford childcare, because it also allows community members to share those same responsibilities, so that might be an option. We’re trying to be creative and create options, so people don’t have to quit their jobs in order to stay home.