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State of Counties webinar focuses on pandemic, relief plans

Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce presented the State of the Counties webinar program March 31. The program was meant to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic response at the county and school district levels, as well as look ahead to upcoming plans and COVID-19 relief.

Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong and Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure discussed how both counties responded, and continue to respond, to the pandemic. They also spoke about the future of Lehigh and Northampton counties.

Lehigh County is currently under the longest state of emergency in the history of the county due to the pandemic, which created the need for new protocols to promote the health and safety of its workforce and residents. Lehigh County also partnered with Pennsylvania Department of Health, Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network to create mass COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites. Through the CARES Act funding, the county created the COVID-19 Response Steering Committee, which was able to determine the best way to give out aid to municipal governments, small businesses, nonprofits and other organizations.

Lehigh County partnered with its neighbor, Northampton County, to put money together and create a regional program. Both counties realized there are many overlapping businesses, such as the airport and tourist attractions, according to Armstrong.

Lehigh County is also planning for the future, even while all of the pandemic response and relief are taking effect. Two million dollars of the county’s budget has been set aside to continue with farmland preservation.

“Lehigh County ranks in the top three in the state with over 350 farms preserved and over 25,000 acres of farmland set aside. Because we all know, once a warehouse is built, you’re never going to get it back to farmland, so we have made it one of our top priorities,” Armstrong said.

The county is also working on expanding the Rails to Trails programs as another one of its top priorities with the increase in use of biking and walking trails.

McClure’s presentation took a different route. The county real estate property tax has not been raised in the past three years, and it was announced it will not be raised when the budget is released this fall. It also appears an increase will not be proposed within the next four years.

McClure said he called on the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to everyone since restrictions were to begin easing April 4. The easing COVID-19 restrictions will be good for business, it was mentioned, especially for small businesses that have been struggling during the pandemic. Last year, Northampton County was able to help more than 800 small businesses by giving them a combined $11 million through funding from the CARES Act. The county plans to have another round of small-business grants with the funding that should be coming in from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Another reason McClure wants the vaccine to be available to everyone is that the rate of infection in Northampton County is too high. Thirteen percent of the new infections are from college students, but the largest group of new infections comes from people between the ages of 30 and 45, according to the DOH. With these new infections, it is important to remember to keep wearing masks, washing and sanitizing our hands and keep social distancing until vaccination rates significantly increase.

Dr. Elaine Eib, executive director of Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit, and Christopher Wolfel, executive director of Colonial Intermediate Unit 20, spoke on how education was affected by the pandemic and how this learning experience will affect education going forward.

“Planning is the lifeblood of education and educators. It’s what educators are trained to do, and they do it the best,” Eib said.

This is just one of the reasons the COVID-19 pandemic had such a tremendous impact on the education system. Educators had almost no time to plan the shift to remote learning. There were also other issues educators had to conquer - regular remote instruction by all teachers, young learners from prekindergarten to second grade, special-needs students and food insecurity. Schools had no time to prepare but were called to immediate action. Technology was the first problem to be addressed - determining who had access to technology and who did not. Both parents and teachers had to learn how to navigate the remote-learning process.

Further, the summer of 2020 was different from any other summer. The usual task of transitioning between school years had the added challenge of implementing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-regulated plan to bring students back to the classroom in some capacity. This was also coupled with the United States’ political climate and opinions posted all over social media. The goal became doing the best for the health, safety and well-being of the students and staff members on top of continuous education.

Wolfel stressed the importance of creating a better tomorrow for students and staff using the strategies gained from remote instruction. One way to do this is increasing work in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). On top of dealing with a pandemic and remote learning, teachers also had to navigate the political climate and news headlines throughout the school year. Students have questions and want to talk about these events, and our community is getting more diverse, so we cannot avoid talking about these difficult topics, it was added.

“We must have positive discussions with our students, celebrate diversity, work toward creating equity and ensure that everyone in our community feels included,” Wolfel said.

Also, learning gaps will be especially evident among students with learning difficulties and special needs. Wolfel believes educators need to provide opportunities for students to fill the gaps in their education, so they are ready for the 2021-22 school year.

The pandemic has had an effect on the social and emotional health of both students and teachers. This came from the sudden change in routine, being put into a new learning environment and being isolated from friends and colleagues. Wolfel saw a change in his own son due to these reasons and expects many other children will have a similar experience. It is important to get them the help they need.

Teachers have also been under a lot of stress and will need support to make sure they are healthy and ready to take care of their students, he added.