PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: First Day Of School Coming Up Fast; Early Budget?
School district representatives told a joint hearing by the Senate Education and Republican Policy Committee July 27 they need protection from lawsuits holding them liable for spreading COVID-19 if they are to reopen successfully this fall.
School districts said they are already having problems rearranging facilities and hiring enough staff and bus drivers to comply with state social distancing guidelines without threats of lawsuits hanging over their heads.
In separate interviews, school district officials said the state’s school reopening guidelines are too vague and schools need more specifics from the departments of Health and Education about how to open safely.
And then there is the issue of what happens when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. Do they close classrooms or entire schools and under what circumstances do they reopen?
The Wolf Administration, beyond issuing guidance, has left decisions about reopening to school districts and choose not to have one plan for all schools, unlike other COVID-19 mitigation measures. School decisions, they believe, should be under local control. Read more here.
Meanwhile, school districts are moving ahead with a variety of plans, many of them hybrids that mix several days of in-person with online learning, or having students attend classes in-person in shifts to reduce class size or opting for all online learning, at least for the fall semester.
Philadelphia is going to all remote learning through November. Read more here. Pittsburgh and Allentown said they would start online with the intention of moving to in-person later in the fall. Read more here.
With child safety concerns paramount for parents, enrollment is booming for public school alternatives like cyber schools and online academies. PA Cyber Charter school is already at its 12,000 student capacity, the earliest that ever happened, and other online schools are seeing similar enrollments. Read more here.
Either way, parents and grandparents will have to cope with the new schedules and the needs of their children and grandchildren as school district plans evolve and that will affect the ability of parents to work.
The tension between keeping children safe, the feeling that in-person education is the best for students and the ability of parents to be able to work is something House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) wrote about the issue this week and sought to politicize it.
Adding to the school reopening issue were persistent rumors Gov. Wolf was going to announce the statewide closure of schools again or would cancel in-person classes this fall.
It got so bad he had to post a Tweet saying it wasn’t true on Friday and that local school boards and administrators would make that decision.
Colleges, like school districts, also have a variety of plans for returning students. Most state-owned colleges have said they will be remote learning the first semester. Community colleges have announced hybrid plans, for the most part.
Penn State has plans to allow in-person classes, but with lots of restrictions and a plan to do lots of testing.
Some colleges using online learning are starting to cut tuition as COVID-19 keeps students off campuses and if they aren’t students are asking for a break. Read more here.
Business owners in communities where college students aren’t returning are looking at another round of financial hurt as students go online rather than attend in person. Read more here.
The first day of school this year should be very exciting, but for different reasons than in normal years.
Are the Senate and House going to finish the FY 2020-21 budget in October?
The Senate came out with its fall voting schedule last week and, like the House, have November 10 as the only day and last day for voting this year. (Technically, November 30 is the end of the two-year legislative session.)
In May, the Senate and House passed a five-month budget that lasts through November for almost all agencies because of the revenue uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Basic and higher education, however, were funded for the full year, among select other line items.
Lawmakers were criticized for punting the hard decisions until later, particularly after the November 3 election. Did they take that criticism to heart?
Probably not. Something else is afoot.
You Have Right To Know
On July 26, Gov. Tom Wolf announced he let House Bill 2463 (Grove-R-York) requiring compliance with the Right To Know Law for requesting public information during emergencies become law without his signature.
Early in the pandemic, Gov. Wolf did suspend processing Right To Know requests because state employees were working from home, but he made it clear last week, agencies have been processing records requests and have been doing so for months.
He used his announcement as an opportunity to very bluntly call on the General Assembly to cover themselves with the same Right To Know Law provisions, adopt campaign finance reform and for legislators to ban accepting gifts. Read more here.
Nasty comments were exchanged again last week between anti-masker Republicans and others who disagreed with them.
Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon)– anti-masker, Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine were involved in one incident.
Rep. Diamond used comments by Dr. Levine Tuesday denouncing recent transphobic incidents against her from areas that opposed the anti-COVID-19 mitigation measures. He used them to describe the harassment “the unmasked” receive.
Gov. Wolf then took up the gauntlet saying, “virtually no thinking person disputes mask-wearing” is effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
“To equate any disrespect for those not wearing masks to the decades of disrespect, threats and violence against our LGBTQ community goes far beyond the hallmarks of a decent society,” Gov. Wolf said.
He followed that with a call on Republican House leadership to formally censure Rep. Diamond. (No one in leadership answered the call.)
Rep. Diamond returned fire saying he shouldn’t be censured, both Gov. Wolf and Secretary Levine should resign.
When asked by a reporter at a press conference if he would resign, Gov. Wolf said, “no,” turned to Secretary Levine and asked if she planned to resign, she said, “no.”
In another nasty anti-masker exchange this week, Republican anti-masker Sen. Doug Mastriano (Franklin) attacked over 40 local faith leaders for taking out an ad in the Gettysburg Times that rebuked Sen. Mastriano’s attacks on COVID-19 safety measures, like wearing a mask.
In a Facebook video post response by Sen. Mastriano, since taken down, he said, “I think they lack the courage. I think they’re cowards hiding behind their keyboard. That’s how the left is. We can completely discount their allegations, because they have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof.”
Pennsylvania Republican member of Congress Guy Reschenthaler (Allegheny) said last week he is in self-quarantine for 14 days because a fellow Republican member of Congress– who frequently did not wear a mask– tested positive for COVID-19. Read more here.
A Franklin & Marshall Poll released last week found 64 percent of registered voters support wearing a mask and 22 percent of those surveyed had a family member or close friend contract COVID-19.
Counties/States Of Concern
The statewide percent-positivity went down to 4.6 percent from 4.7% last week– five percent is bad.
Counties with concerning percent-positivity include Lawrence (7.4 percent), Franklin (7.2 percent), Indiana (7.2 percent), Fayette (7.1 percent), Armstrong (7.0 percent), Beaver (6.5 percent), Delaware (6.5 percent), Allegheny (6.4 percent), Lancaster (5.8 percent), Berks (5.6 percent), Philadelphia (5.4 percent) and Chester (5.3 percent). Read more here.
The Department of Health took Wyoming off the list of states travelers should self-quarantine when returning. Read more here.
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,118 deaths on July 26 to 7,209 deaths on August 2. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 107,425 cases on July 26 to 113,590 cases on August 2.
For the week July 19 – 25, there were 35,808 unemployment claims, down slightly from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056. Read more here.
PA Capital-Star Reported Friday about 193,000 Pennsylvanians are still waiting for answers on their unemployment claims– that’s more than previous numbers. Read more here.
Regional unemployment numbers for June was a mixed bag with Erie (14.5 percent) and the Lehigh Valley (14.2 percent) showing slight increases and Pittsburgh (12.5 percent), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (15.2 percent) and Lancaster (11.1 percent)dropping slightly.
Poll Position – Biden v. Trump
Three new political polls came out last week on the Presidential race in Pennsylvania and they each told a similar story, but to different degrees.
A new Franklin & Marshall Poll has Joe Biden leading Donald Trump 50 to 41 percent.
A Morning Consult Poll had Biden leading Trump 50 to 42 percent.
A CNBC/Change Poll had Biden at 48 percent and Trump at 46 percent.
The Real Clear Politics Average Poll has Biden leading Trump by 7.4 percent.
But, and it can’t be repeated enough, it’s a long way to November, unless President Trump follows his Tweet about postponing the November election
Poll Position – Wolf & More
Two of the polls had results about how well Gov. Wolf is handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Franklin & Marshall Poll found 52 percent believed Wolf was doing an excellent or good job with the pandemic. President Trump didn’t do as well– 29 percent.
The CNBC/Change Poll said 55 percent believed Wolf was doing a good job.
On other issues, the Franklin & Marshall Poll found–
— 48 percent said state is headed in right direction down from 57 percent in October
— 24 percent said the United States is headed in the right direction, down from 38 percent in January
— 32 percent list COVID-19 as most important problem facing Pennsylvania, Government & Politicians second at 13 percent and personal finance 13 percent
— 62 percent believe white people have advantages, 89 percent angry that racism exists, 20 percent believe racial problem are rare, isolated situations, 5 percent are fearful of people of other races
— 74 percent say they are very interested in 2020 elections, higher than leading up to 2018 election midterms – 71 percent
— 28 percent from Internet (other than social media), 25 percent from cable [49 percent from Fox News], 21 percent from network TV, 11 percent daily newspaper, 8 percent from social media
Paid Mail-In Ballots
On July 31, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar announced the state will provide funding for postage so all eligible voters can return their mail-in and absentee ballots at no cost to the voter. Read more here.
Requests for a mail-in or absentee ballots must be made by October 27 and the deadline to return the ballot is November 3. Ballots can be requested online.
The House is due back in session on September 15, but several committees have hearings set for this week.
The House Education Committee is holding two days of hearings on safely reopening schools in the fall. The House Democratic Policy Committee has hearings scheduled on police reform and insurance coverage for hearing aids. Click Here for the schedule.
The Senate set September 8 as their return date and also have committee activities scheduled.
The Senate Republican Policy Committee has an informational meeting on challenges faced by rural hospitals and the Senate Democratice Policy Committee has a hearing on responsible school reopening. Click Here for the schedule.