In This Update:
Hearing Highlights Importance of Getting Students Back in the Classroom
A joint hearing of the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday explored the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students, families and educators. The message from teachers, parents, students, representatives of state agencies and other key stakeholders was clear – Pennsylvania students need to be back in the classroom as soon as possible to safeguard their educational development and mental health.
Testifiers explained the numerous ways that school shutdowns and current policies are hurting young people and families. The hearing also included discussion about meeting the needs of students with special needs, challenges associated with virtual learning and hybrid models, the need for consistency in state and federal guidance to school districts, concerns about standardized testing during COVID-19, and much more.
Funding Released to Support Struggling Restaurants, Hospitality Industry
The Senate approved legislation that was signed into law last month to provide $145 million to Pennsylvania restaurants and other employers in the hospitality industry that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and Governor Wolf’s mitigation orders. Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity announced last week that the funding has been distributed to counties, clearing the way for employers to begin applying for grants on March 15.
The grant program will be administered by local economic development organizations and/or community development financial institutions. More details on how to apply in each county will be available within the next two weeks.
DMVA, PHEAA Launch Portal for Guard Members, Families Applying for Higher Education Benefits
The Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) have collaborated to create a portal that automates the education benefits application process for Pennsylvania National Guard (PNG) members and their families.
The new electronic process – which can now be completed from any device such as a computer, tablet or smart phone – allows for submission of applications for the Military Family Education Program (MFEP) and the Education Assistance Program (EAP), as well as the ability to change/update enrollment information, assign beneficiaries, and change credit allocations.
Officially launched today, the new portal was created quicker than expected, under budget and provides an administrative cost reduction.
“Pennsylvania National Guard members and their families have earned valuable education benefits thanks to their incredible service, support and sacrifice,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Schindler, Pennsylvania’s acting adjutant general and acting head of the DMVA. “By partnering with PHEAA and leveraging technology, we can now provide a faster and more convenient experience when our soldiers, airmen and their families apply for the benefits they have earned.”
Prior to automation, paper applications and enrollment changes and updates were sent out to service members through their unit of assignment, then sent to the PNG Education and Incentives Center for manual entry into their system for approval. Once approved, they were then couriered to PHEAA for manual entry into its system.
“When the General Assembly created MFEP in 2019, we did so with a sense of deep appreciation for the sacrifices made by our service members and their families,” said Rep. Mike Peifer, chairman of the PHEAA Board of Directors. “In partnering with the DMVA in administrating the program, PHEAA dedicated itself to developing a transformative digital application and management process that provides an immediate, all-electronic workflow that increases speed, accuracy and convenience for our service members.”
Pennsylvania has the second largest National Guard in the country with approximately 18,000 members located in more than 80 armories and readiness centers statewide. To learn more about valuable education benefits that help the PNG retain and strengthen its readiness, visit https://www.pa.ng.mil/education/ .
COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force Announces Plan to Prioritize Seniors and Vaccinate Teachers
In order to help get more Pennsylvania students back in the classroom, the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force announced a new plan this week to provide vaccines to teachers without impacting the ability of seniors and other vulnerable populations to get vaccinated. This announcement came in conjunction with news of an improved distribution formula that accounts for a county’s overall population, population over 65, infection rate, and COVID death rate, the intent of which is to dramatically improve the vaccination rate of Pennsylvanians in Phase 1A, including seniors.
The new vaccination plan would not change who is eligible to receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in Phase 1A, including older Pennsylvanians and state residents who are more vulnerable to the virus due to various health conditions. However, teachers would now be eligible to receive the newly authorized, single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine under a separate program, which is expected to help teachers and students return to the classroom as soon as possible.
In order to deliver the vaccine quickly, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the departments of Education and Health will partner with the state’s 28 Intermediate Units (IUs) to establish vaccine sites, with the support of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Lawmakers passed legislation authorizing the National Guard to deliver vaccines in February.
PUC Urges Consumers to Explore Assistance Options
Consumers and businesses who are struggling with higher heating bills this winter are encouraged to explore assistance options before existing programs are changed or eliminated. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is urging individuals and employers to contact their utility company to learn about assistance programs that are available, including payment plans, late-payment fee waivers and other options to resolve overdue balances.
Consumers can also call PUC’s Bureau of Consumer Services toll free at 1-800-692-7380 for more information.
Wildlife Conservation Officer Training Program Applications Due March 14
Pennsylvanians who are interested in a career as a Wildlife Conservation Officer can apply now through March 14 to be a part of the next training program, which begins this summer.
The training includes a 26-week basic training course for municipal police officers in Hershey, followed by an additional 26 weeks of training at the H.R. Stackhouse School of Fishery Conservation and Watercraft Safety in Bellefonte, Centre County.
New Resources Available for National Guard Members, Veterans and Job-Seekers
The Pennsylvania National Guard Associations will host three virtual job fairs in the coming months to help connect veterans and other job-seekers with employment opportunities in their area. The first event will be held on March 24 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., with additional events scheduled on May 26 and July 28. Interested individuals can register to participate here.
The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) also recently announced a new online portal to help National Guard members and their families access education benefits, allowing applications for the Military Family Education Program and the Education Assistance Program to be completed online. More details on benefits are available on PHEAA’s website.
Around the District
This weekend we celebrated one of Somerset’s sweeter industries at the PA Maple Festival Tree Tapping ceremony. We gathered at the Sechler Sugar Shack to mark the official opening of the 2021 Maple season. Maple King Kyle Hillegas and Maple Queen Maggie Walker tapped the first tree as the 2021 Maple Princesses and their families looked on. I even left with my own jug of Somerset Maple Syrup. Congratulations to everyone involved!
March 2nd was Read Across America Day! I celebrated the day by reading a few Dr. Seuss stories to their PreK Counts students at the Crayon Clubhouse Bullskin Early Learning Center in Connellsville. The Center’s director Christina Saunders gave me a tour and had me read a story to each of their three classes. The students even gave me a thank you card to remember my visit, which I will display proudly in my Connellsville office. Take a moment to read to the kids in your life this week!