COVID-19 in Pa.: If the priority is making sure schools reopen, why didn’t we plan for that first? | Thursday Morning Coffee

July 16, 2020 7:42 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

How many more times are we going to get this wrong?

Let’s accept for a moment that the core reason that Gov. Tom Wolf and state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine rolled out a new suite of COVID-19 mitigation measures Wednesday clamping down on large gatherings and indoor dining is to get the virus under control so that schools can reopen safely in the fall.

Good deal. I want schools to reopen safely this fall so that my child and yours can go back to class — at least  part time — as we continue to try to get the worst public health crisis in a century under control. More power to the administration, I hope that happens.

But I cannot help but ask — again — why didn’t policymakers have a plan in place to reopen schools before and not after they reopened the economy?

You can reopen as many businesses as you want, and send as many people back to the office as social distancing guidelines dictate, but none of that matters if the parents of school-aged children are worrying about where they’re going to find childcare for their first-grader or how they’re going to be both at work and at home to handle online lessons for their kids.

As Deb Perleman wrote so eloquently in the New York Times on July 2, “In the COVID-19 economy, you can have a kid or a job. You can’t have both.”

Schools in Pennsylvania are preparing to reopen after being closed since March. (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

As I wrote back in April, Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts were caught flat-footed by the pandemic, as they scrambled to come up with distance learning plans to accommodate their students. In fairness, the historic nature of the COVID-19 outbreak would test the skills of even the most dedicated and competent emergency planners.

And right now, as the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison wrote over the weekend, school districts around the state are still working on coming up with their reopening plans. Some are farther along than others. And most are settling on a hybrid of in-person classes and distance learning, which seems like the most practical thing all around.

During a news conference Wednesday, Wolf attributed the spike to inter-state travel, as well as poor coordination by the federal government that led to dramatic surges in states such as Arizona, Florida, California and Texas, where tens of thousands of new cases each day are straining hospitals and intensive care units, Hardison and Stephen Caruso reported.

“This virus does not respect state boundaries, and we are paying the price for what states have not done,” Wolf said.

But Wolf also said that Pennsylvanians have contributed to the spread by failing to wear masks in bars and restaurants, Hardison and Caurso reported.

Dr. Krys Johnson, a Temple University epidemiology professor who thought the state moved too quickly with its reopening plans, told our staff that the steps Wolf outlined Wednesday “are 100 percent necessary and can indeed keep our new case numbers down.”

But, again, policymakers are scrambling to undo the damage of a plan that prioritized the economy over schools.

Wolf further added Wednesday that he’d be willing to pull the plug on reopening schools if cases continue to surge. But, as PennLive reports, that might not matter since teachers and students might be too fearful of catching the virus and wouldn’t return to class anyway, Wolf said.

So imagine for a moment if the administration’s color-coded reopening plan had been predicated on how ready schools were to reopen, rather than how ready we were to go back to work, or start getting haircuts or mani/pedis again.

Imagine for a moment if all those flag-waving, mask-haters, and the GOP lawmakers who enable them, had been protesting the fact that their kids were still at home, instead of complaining that they couldn’t get a bottle of their favorite booze at the state store?

The economy only works if parents don’t have to sweat whether their kids can safely go back to school. We only get ahead of the virus if people aren’t pushed to go back to work before they’re ready. As a parent, I can tell you there’s no agony quite like leaving your child at home, and then spending the rest of the day worrying if they’re okay or not.

But as much as there’s been a failure of planning, there’s also been a failure of collective responsibility. Too many of us aren’t wearing a mask; too many of us are flouting social distancing guidelines; too many of us are attending super-spreader events, ensuring that the virus will continue to rage.

“If you’re thinking that you might need to wear a mask, don’t think so hard. Wear a mask,” state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said during Wednesday’s briefing. “If you’re worried about getting together with people who are vocal about not changing their lifestyle and not wearing a mask, make a choice not to see them. Pennsylvanians want to be at work. Children want to be back at school. It is our actions as a community that will impact our ability to do that.”

We can’t afford to get this wrong anymore. If we want our kids back in class, it’s on all of us — policymakers and Pennsylvanians.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
As noted above, Elizabeth Hardison and Stephen Caruso have all you need to know about the Wolf administration’s new COVID-19 mitigation orders.

A new Monmouth University poll has former Veep Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump by 13 percentage points in Pennsylvania. The result is much closer, 7-10 percent, among likely voters, and respondents think a ‘secret’ Trump vote may show up by Election Day.

Philly teachers want the city’s schools to have plans for distance learning and COVID-19 testing in place by the time classes start this fall, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, Diana Polson, of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, says U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.needs to drop his opposition to the latest coronavirus relief bill, the Heroes Act. And there’s no grief quite like the grief of a Black mother: Duquesne University doctoral student Caitlyn Brown writes of the mother of a Duquesne student who fell to his death at the school.

 runs down the most — and least — affordable neighborhoods in Pennsylvania’s largest city.
Officials in Plum Township are calling for the resignation of a local school board member over a Facebook post, the Tribune-Review reports.
PennLive’s John Baer reflects on one of the Legislature’s worst bad ideas.
Protesters picketed Allentown City Hall on Wednesday as City Council met to discuss a now-viral video of a city police officer kneeling on the neck of a person they’d taken into custody. The Morning Call has the story.
Officials at the Mohegan Sun casino are looking for clarity on the Wolf administration’s new reopening orders, the Citizens-Voice reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:


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Reflecting big ole skies over Black Mo #pennsylvania #pawilds #hikepa #scenicpa

A post shared by Mike Glass (@orthodoxcaveman) on

Officials in Upper Darby have announced policing reforms and a policy reviewWHYY-FM reports.
looks at the issues that some in central Pennsylvania are having with filing for unemployment. 
States are finding their contact tracing efforts hampered by a lack of trust and delays, reports.
Drug overdose deaths hit a record high in 2019, NYMag’s Intelligencer reports.

What Goes On.
10 a.m., 333 Market St., Harrisburg:
 Independent Regulatory Review Commission

Heavy Rotation.
Making us feel very old indeed, R.E.M.’s third album, “Fables of the Reconstruction,” turns 35 years old this week. Misunderstood upon its release, it’s stood the test of time as one of the finest outings of the band’s first era. Here’s our favorite, “Life and How to Live It.”

Thursday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
San Jose 
got past Vancouver 4-3 as the MLS’ Return to Play tournament rolls forward.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.