The Centers for Disease (CDC) released new guidelines for “Opening America Up Again” May 20, and the section that recommends measures for opening schools has raised questions.
“There are numerous factors to consider but the biggest obstacle will be transportation,” said Amy Smith, Mount Union Area School District superintendent.
The guidelines recommend staggering arrival and drop-off times, as well as creating social distance between children on school buses. An example given is seating children one per seat and every other row.
“While the other guidelines will require a lot of planning and attention to detail, adhering to the transportation guidelines, as it is specifically recommended that we, “seat children one child per row, skip rows,” would take hours to transport the students to their respective buildings,” said Smith.
Smith said she has been in communication with other county superintendents online for weeks now to strategize about the best path forward to reopen for each district.
Other guidelines include closing “dining halls” and “game rooms,” minimizing mixing students and teachers when possible, limiting gatherings and extracurricular activities to those who can maintain social distancing, keeping desks six feet apart and wearing masks throughout the day.
While these measures may be difficult to maintain, Smith said it’s what’s needed for in-person instruction.
“In regards to student expectations, it will be difficult to continually ensure all students adhere to the CDC distancing guidelines at the various grade levels, especially elementary students. However, we will need to ensure our students are following the mandated guidelines so we can provide educational opportunities within the brick and mortar classroom rather than continuing with online learning at home,” she said.
Fred Foster, superintendent for Huntingdon Area School District, welcomed the expert input.
“Honestly, without the guidance I think we’d all be spinning our wheels,” he said. “It’s a guide, a good recommended guide. They (CDC) follow international studies and we certainly need the guidance. We’ve got a lot of questions, and we’re starting to think about next year. Our goal is to create a small task force to get ready over the summer months.”
Transportation is also an issue for Foster.
“Getting students on the bus, what’s that going to look like? And how many can we get on the bus?” asked Foster.
Some recommended measures, such as taking the temperature of students and staff upon entering a school, will require a financial investment from the school districts.
“We’ll have to look at how this is going to shift our budget. Everyone has a trusted expectation of keeping safe in school.” said Foster.
Dwayne Northcraft, superintendent for Southern Huntingdon County School District, said that, “Some of these measures would cause us to spend quite a bit more money,” but noted that the new guidelines haven’t come as a surprise.
“These are things we’ve talked about for some time,” he said. “It’s new info in that it’s packaged and formalized, but it’s not something we haven’t heard about. Where we’re at in southern Huntingdon is we are working on our remote learning plan...I know for certain whether things return to where they were before this pandemic, regardless we know we want to have remote learning capabilities with our families,” he said.
“I think what you’ll see is a lot of these concerns intensify late June and early July. The point being we’ll still have two months to prepare for this new landscape,” said Northcraft.
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The Huntingdon County Planning Commission (HCPC) heard about the allocation of $166,152 to Huntingdon County through the CARES Act and CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding at its monthly meeting Thursday night, held via teleconferencing.
Stacia-Fe Gillen, the HCPC’s community development administrator, explained the money can address concerns about how COVID-19 has affected communities.
“The funds are meant to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus,” she said, noting that the allocations carry some of the stipulations of CDBG funds but that the state announced the allocation for free entitlement communities, completely separate from the regular CDBG funds.
Of the $166,152, Huntingdon Borough received $69,001 and Smithfield Township received $61,760.
What the funds can be used for is still being determined.
“The issues that we’ve been experiencing so far are what exactly eligible actions would be,” she said. “There has been expressed desire to fund more PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Proving how that meets the requirements of the grant is difficult at this time. We’re still waiting from feedback from our grant managers.”
A possible partnership with the Center for Community Action (CCA) could be in the cards.
“We’ve been approached by the CCA to see if they could submit an application on behalf of those entitlement communities. They are interested in offering potentially rental and mortgage payment assistance, and hotel and motel vouchers. We’re in the process, right now, of reaching out to our entitlement communities to see if they’d like to partner with CCA,” said Gillen.
“Would the EMA outfit have any use of that stuff for any ambulance runners?” asked commission chair Ron Rabena.
“We’ve been in contact with Joe Thompson (EMA executive director). Right now we’re just really struggling to understand what eligible activities are. He asked about PPE for his staff so we’re looking into that,” said Gillen.
Also at the meeting, a resolution was passed to officially acknowledge the work of HCPC’s office manager/secretary Laurie Nearhood over her career at the Huntingdon County Planning & Development Department.
“Laurie has provided outstanding leadership and guidance to the department during the course of her 25-plus year career, particularly over the past 12 months. Whereas Laurie faithfully and with honor, integrity and great distinction has served the department in numerous different capacities including secretary office manager/secretary interim grant administrator and interim planning director,” read Rabena.
“As a token of appreciation, the planning directors have hereby requested to provide this distinguished service proclamation to the Huntington County commissioner and the chief clerk.”
All present agreed.
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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Some counties in Pennsylvania could see practically all of the state’s pandemic restrictions on business activity and gatherings lifted in the coming days, other than social-distancing and health-monitoring guidelines that are in place to help stop the spread of the coronarivus.
Thursday’s announcement by Gov. Tom Wolf — that some counties could get to move to the least-restrictive “green” phase of his three-color traffic-signal reopening plan stages — could become official on Friday.
“So I’ll be announcing a whole range of counties tomorrow moving from red to yellow and the hope is that we’ll also be making some counties that might even be moving from yellow to green tomorrow,” Wolf told reporters on a conference call.
With the number of new infections slowing, Wolf has been easing social distancing restrictions and allowing many businesses to reopen in lightly impacted areas of the state.
It is not clear, exactly, what restrictions, if any, will remain in place in the green phase.
Wolf’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said the Health Department will soon release criteria for moving a county into the green phase of Wolf’s reopening plan.
“As we release the metrics to go into the green zone, we’re also working on what life in the green zone would (look) like, especially for businesses, restaurants, etc.,” Levine said Thursday at a video news conference.
On Friday, 12 already-announced counties — Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Wayne and York — will move from red to yellow and join 37 other counties.
Eighteen mostly eastern Pennsylvania counties that are home to 60% of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents — including Philadelphia and its heavily populated suburbs — have yet to receive word as to when they will leave the red phase.
Wolf’s stay-at-home order still applies in the red phase, as do many restrictions on business activity that lift in the yellow phase.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Thursday:
DRINKS TO GO
Drinks to-go are now legal at Pennsylvania’s bars, restaurants, hotels and other liquor license holders.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation Thursday that lawmakers passed overwhelmingly as a way to provide some outlet for bars and others to make money while they are shut down or limited during the state’s pandemic restrictions on in-house dining and drinking.
There are limits on the drinks.
The drinks must be sold as mixed drinks in quantities no larger than 64 ounces in a sealed container, and not after 11 p.m.
To sell the drinks, hotel and restaurant licensees that offer meals to-go must have lost at least 25% of their average monthly sales due to coronavirus restrictions.
Licencees can continue selling the drinks after the state’s disaster order if they are operating at less than 60% of their normal business.
Wolf said he didn’t necessarily think the legislation was a good idea, but noted its overwhelming support in the Legislature as a lifeline to bars and restaurants.
Meanwhile, bars and restaurants in counties that have been minimally impacted by the coronavirus are asking to be allowed to seat customers again, at least outside.
Those bars and restaurants should be able to open decks, patios and courtyards, at up to 50% of the outdoor maximum seating capacity and with tables at least 6 feet apart, the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association said.
Parking lots also could be used to offer limited seating, roped off with a single entry point, while the bars and restaurants could offer live entertainment, with restrictions on noise levels, the group said.
As the virus continues to ebb, the association said it wants establishments to be able to seat patrons inside, with the same social-distancing rules as outside.
POLLING PLACE REDUCTIONS
Pennsylvania’s Department of State approved Philadelphia’s plan to consolidate some 850 polling places into 190 polling places for the June 2 primary election that will be conducted while the city is likely to still be under the governor’s coronavirus stay-at-home order.
Allegheny County, the state’s second-most populous county behind Philadelphia, received state approval to set up 211 polling places, down from about 830. Montgomery County, the third-most populous county, is planning to set up 140, down from 352.
The fear of infection has made it difficult to recruit polling workers, and state and federal health guidelines have made it difficult to find polling places that can accommodate the demands of social distancing, local election officials say.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Thursday reported 102 additional deaths linked to COVID-19, raising the statewide total to 4,869.
Two-thirds of the state’s deaths have been among residents of nursing homes and other facilities that care for older adults.
State health officials also reported that 980 more people have tested positive for the new coronavirus. The state has recorded fewer than 1,000 new cases for 11 consecutive days.
Since early March, infections have been confirmed in more than 65,000 people in Pennsylvania.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have fully recovered.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
Officials from Penn Highlands Huntingdon said in a conference call Thursday they are starting to see patient volumes increase once again, allowing them to bring back some of the 600 employees they furloughed as a result of stopping elective procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re about to 75% of pre-pandemic volumes,” said Mark Norman, chief operating officer. “We are bringing back employees as needed, and we will continue to do so as we see more increases.”
As Penn Highlands has started to perform elective procedures once again, they want people to be assured they have enough personal protective equipment for staff.
“We want people to know we’re open and ready to accept patients, especially in our emergency rooms,” said Norman. “We want to help people by keeping them educated and informed.”
Norman discussed how they’re starting a campaign noting that, “We’re here. Here for You.” which shows how they are helping to provide the safest care possible throughout the entire health system.
Shaun Sheehan, head of the Penn Highlands COVID-19 Task Force, discussed how they are evolving the health system to go back to regular health care in the pandemic.
“Our dedicated COVID-19 unit (in DuBois) has been transitioned back to its previous operation, but it could be opened again relatively easily,” said Sheehan. “Our volume of COVID-19 patient rollouts remains low, including at Penn Highlands Huntingdon.”
Additionally, they are still operating with most of their previous restrictions on visitors in place, but Sheehan noted that one person can go with a patient for a procedure as a support person.
“Note that this is a support person, and they are not considered a visitor,” said Sheehan. “We haven’t changed our visitor policies. The one area that would be excluded would be our infusion centers where patients are getting chemotherapy due to the high risk associated with the diseases being treated there.”
Like patients who enter the facility, the support person would have to go through a screening process and temperature checks, and they would receive a pass for the duration of their time in the facility.
“Also, across our health system, we have the required social distancing in all of our waiting areas, and we’re also disinfecting public spaces frequently with industrial products,” said Sheehan.
Norman added that patients have also been allowed support people for end-of-life situations during the course of the restrictions due to the pandemic.
Sheehan noted that as of Wednesday, there had been 1,872 tests performed in total, with 1,700 completed, and there have been 82 positives, with most of them at Penn Highlands Huntingdon.
“It usually takes 1-4 days for tests to be returned, but sometimes it’s up to six,” said Sheehan. “We send our swabs to Quest Diagnostics in Pittsburgh, and with our current supply of testing, we should be able to test most of the public, with priority going to healthcare workers, frontline workers, and public safety individuals as well as any individuals who have symptoms.”
Symptoms of COVID-19, as described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, diarrhea, sore throat and a fever of 103 degrees or higher.
When asked if antibody testing is available at any Penn Highlands facilities, Sheehan noted they are able to send one type of antibody test to Quest Diagnostics in Pittsburgh, but pointed out that there’s not enough evidence at this time to show if antibodies means any kind of immunity to COVID-19.
“Having antibodies doesn’t mean individuals can’t be infected or reinfected,” said Sheehan. “That data doesn’t exist yet. We hope it’s the case, but there’s no clear evidence that it is the case.”
He also stressed the best methods of preventing the spread known at this time, including physical distancing, good hand hygiene and wearing masks in public places where lots of people congregate.
“This is how our society can co-exist with this virus,” said Sheehan.
Sheehan also touted state Department of Corrections staff for the outbreak at SCI Huntingdon for their communication with Penn Highlands Huntingdon and officials throughout the health system.
“It’s an unfortunate situation within the correctional facility,” said Sheehan. “But, the DOC has been doing a fantastic job with keeping in touch with us. We’re working cooperatively with them. They’re also treating and isolating COVID-19 patients at their expanded infirmary. We’ve seen very few inmates presenting to the emergency department. Most can be treated (at SCI Huntingdon). Only a few have required admission, and some have required a higher level of care to a tertiary facility.”