CHESTER >> Five cabinet members from the Wolf administration visited Widener University Thursday for the first Cabinet in Your Community panel discussion in the Office of Government Outreach and Affair’s Southeast region.
Secretaries Teresa Osborne, Department of Aging; Leslie Richards, Transportation; Pedro Rivera, Education; Curt Topper, General Services; and Physician General and Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine fielded questions from members of public, Widener students and faculty, and local officials.
“The purpose is to visit all areas of the commonwealth and create a direct forum with cabinet members,” said Levine, speaking with the Times after the forum. “I welcome comments and suggestions, and am pleased to discuss Gov. Wolf’s opioid declaration.”
The state’s opioid crisis and underperforming schools were recurring topics from the audience.
“The opioid epidemic is the largest public health crisis we face in Pennsylvania, and, you could argue the nation,” Levine said during the forum, citing 4,600 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania in 2016 and likely over 5,000 in 2017, pending final numbers.
Levine outlined the department’s initiatives to combat the crisis, including work with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and state law enforcement under Wolf’s emergency declaration. The Department of Health’s prevention efforts include working with healthcare providers to foster what Levine calls “opioid stewardship,” ensuring physicians “carefully and judiciously” prescribe opioids for pain management. Department data shows a 12 percent decrease in opioid prescriptions over one year, which she called “better but not enough.”
Levine touted the lifesaving success of equipping first responders with naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses but said is “necessary but not sufficient.” The department is working on expanding its ward handoff efforts to get people who have been revived into treatment, receiving medicinal help for withdraw along with counseling and case management.
When asked by audience members, Levine said the administration had no formal comment on the movement in Philadelphia to designate safe sites for intravenous drug use, and could not comment on litigation holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for the crisis.
Rivera called the state’s plan under the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), approved by the U.S. Department of Education on Jan. 16, a way to “engage and create the narrative and culture of education for the next decade plus.”
Career-focused parts of the plan include expanding makerspaces/hackerspaces in public libraries to introduce children to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and improving the “teacher pipeline” through residency programs to give education students more classroom experience than the traditional student-teaching semester model.
Responding to a question on intervention in failing districts by Philadelphia education advocate Sylvia Simms, Rivera touted the administration’s moving the state’s focus on standardized tests to a holistic look at reading and math attainment levels, chronic absenteeism, college and career readiness and other criteria.
He gave an example of an unspecified school that had “no North Star in terms of structure” for its curriculum and the state’s work with its teachers and administration to create an aligned curriculum, then with teachers and parents to implement it.
“One highlight for the governor is increasing the number of seats available to our most vulnerable groups of students,” he said of state investments in early childhood education programs. “But we’re only touching the surface of those students in need of those high quality programs.”
Rivera could not comment on potential litigation when asked about Chester Community Charter School’s recent charter extension to 2026, ostensibly violating the five year limit on operating agreement renewals under state law.
He also could not provide details on when the Chester Upland School District could regain local control from the state when asked by city Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland.
Richards privately discussed details after the forum with Tinicum Commissioner Patrick McCarthy and Upper Chichester Township Manager George Needles on questions about streamlining communication on Philadelphia International Airport-related projects, and the status of Route 322/I-95 interchange improvements and related Bridgewater Road extension project, respectively.
When asked about pothole repair, Richards encouraged the public to report potholes to the 1-800-FIX-ROADS toll free number and to expect a large number this year due to large temperature fluctuations so far this winter. Crews are currently making temporary repairs, but permanent ones are not possible until temperatures rise in the spring.