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Rent relief program severely flawed from the start

The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

August 27, 2020 | spotlightpa.org
Five days.

That's how much time renters have before Pennsylvania's ban on evictions expires. And a new Spotlight PA review reveals the state program meant to help those struggling to pay their rent was severely flawed from the start.

So many landlords have refused to participate that the agency overseeing the relief has been calling for sweeping changes since it launched in July. Despite those requests, the legislature — largely on summer break — has not fixed it. A solution to the program's problems will have to go through them.

Landlords had their reasons for opting out. For one, the assistance was capped at $750 a month, not nearly enough to cover rent in many areas. Landlords were not allowed to ask tenants to pay the difference, but they did have to agree to put off eviction filings for at least 60 days after the last payment.

The stakes couldn't be higher. While some were counting on Gov. Tom Wolf to extend the eviction moratorium past Aug. 31, he made a surprise announcement Monday: He's legally unable to do it again.

Also this week, there are new concerns about the financial strain on the state's drug and alcohol treatment facilities. Providers, advocates, and state officials are warning that they could begin closing at an alarming rate, even as overdose deaths rise and demand is only expected to increase.

Finally, in hopes of using some of the revenue to fund more coronavirus business relief, Wolf this week called for legalizing recreational marijuana. He also urged the legislature to take up campaign finance reforms, but Republicans in leadership have so far shown little interest in either issue.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA

"I don’t know, he came from almost a block away shooting. We didn’t even see it coming."

— Tory Lowe, who was among a group of civil rights activists marching from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., when they were shot at in Bedford County
Beth Sawyer (@beth.sawyer) shares her "happy place” at Sunflower Fest at Maple Lawn Farms in New Park, Pa.

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Latest on COVID-19

Pennsylvania has been trending in a good direction for several weeks now, with the percent of tests turning up positive continuing to decline. Get a full statewide look with our coronavirus tracker and sign up for weekly alerts with the latest data localized for your county

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How will the state track and report COVID-19 cases in schools? They’re not sure yet.

Much like the situation with nursing homes, there are growing questions about how the state will report coronavirus cases within schools, and how cases will be communicated to the public. For now, parents will largely have to rely on their local districts for information. 

There’s currently no requirement that schools report cases directly to the state Department of Health. And state officials are still deciding how they plan to handle publishing information about known COVID-19 outbreaks among students and staff.

“We are working with the Department of Education and school districts on the best ways to communicate increases in school-aged children,” health department spokesperson Nate Wardle said Aug. 25. “Obviously, it will take some time to link a case in a child to a school.”

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said Wednesday districts “will communicate with families” about COVID-19 cases. Exactly how that happens is supposed to be laid out in individual health and safety plans posted on school websites.

Schools have struggled to decide if it's safe to reopen buildings this fall, if they should go virtual, or if they should use some combination of the two. Amid wide-ranging concerns from districts, the state put out recommendations for what schools should do based on levels of spread in each county.

As of Aug. 21, most of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties were listed as having “moderate” levels of community spread, for which the state’s recommendation is to have either blended or fully remote learning models. 

Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University and an attending physician specializing in pediatric infectious diseases, said that when it comes to school reopenings, the recommendations are bound to be different depending on the district.

But what’s universal, Tan said, is that parents have the right to know what mitigation protocols are in place.

That includes access to specific information about whether masks will be required, how students will be socially distanced, how often they will be able to wash their hands, and whether classrooms will be well ventilated, Tan said. 

That information is included in the required health and safety plans.

But Pennsylvania has done one thing that deeply concerns Tan: temporarily suspend immunization requirements, which could make kids — and staff — vulnerable to other contagious diseases while in a group setting.

“One of the unintended consequences of this pandemic has been a dramatic drop in the rates of routine immunizations,” she said. “They absolutely need to have a mandate out there that children who are going to go back to in-person school need to be up to date on their immunizations.” 

Sara Simon of Spotlight PA

From across the state

» A state board can no longer reject people seeking a cosmetology license using a vague "moral character" clause, Commonwealth Court ruled this week. WHYY reports that while the decision is immediate, a new law set to take effect later this year will have a much broader impact.

» Pennsylvanians receiving unemployment might have to wait weeks to get their supplemental $300 checks. State officials are unsure how changes at the federal level will affect the distribution of the funds, TribLIVE reports. A new computer system may even be needed to process them.

» Hundreds of faculty at Pennsylvania’s state universities could be out of a job come spring 2021. PennLive reports that union leaders at 10 of the 14 state schools received letters warning them of cuts.

More good reads

» BILLY PENN: Group at center of sex abuse scandal has contract to house migrant kids
» BUCKS COUNTY COURIER TIMES: Prisons need to release 2,000 inmates: top official
» CNN: Judge puts major Trump lawsuit against Pennsylvania on hold
» INQUIRER: Feds tell Wolf administration to turn over nursing home data
» PUBLICSOURCE: Did UPMC in Pittsburgh really need $1.1 billion in federal aid?
» WHYY: Philly’s Black-owned businesses closing at faster rates due to pandemic
» WITF: State avoids lawsuit by making Spanish-language ballot app available online

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA

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Road Race (Case No. 53): You're running a race on a sweltering hot day. You're nearing the finish line, and at the last moment, you pass the runner in second place. In what place did you finish?
Stumped? Get a hintFeeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Even before it was discovered, Mt. Everest was the highest.

Congrats to Lou R., who will receive Spotlight PA swag (when we reopen our office!). Others who answered correctly: Philip C., Michele M., Kathy W., Edward N., Deborah D., William D., Karen K., Dick W., Drew C., Annette I., Andrew B., Lindsey S., George S., Steven B., Jaymes D., Judy A., Lynda G., Newell E., Irene T., Gerry W., Gabe O., Carl B., Norman S.A., Lois P., Jon N., Barbara M., Joan C., Joseph A., Hagan H., John N., Kenneth J., Michael H., Joseph A., Dennis F., Jim S., and Lucy B.
» This week's Riddler hint: Don't let the heat cloud your mind.

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