Parents who wish to create virtual learning pods in their homes should come up with COVID-19 safety plans and require background checks for adults working with children, among other guidelines set forth by the state.
"We have two goals: keeping children safe and healthy, and try and create flexibility for working families during this time of stress and anxiety," Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said during a media call Wednesday.
With many schools starting the new year with at least part-time virtual learning, some parents are turning to alternative arrangements to balance both at-home schooling and work. Some are sharing child care responsibilities with neighboring families, while others are turning to relatives or other care providers.
More: 'Pandemic pods,' cyber school and tutors: How Bucks parents are dealing with virtual learning
"The COVID-19 crisis has been a burden on everyone, but it continues to be an especially heavy one for Pennsylvania’s working families with children," Miller said.
In response to the rise of non-licensed child care operations, the department's Office of Child Development and Early Learning recently issued guidelines for part-day, school-age child care programs and learning pods.
The state defines a pod as "a group of no more than 12 of the same school-age children brought together for purposes of sharing parental oversight. The pod may move between various parents’ oversight and homes throughout the remote learning days."
Pods must be supervised by a parent. If they're overseen by a non-parent — say, a teacher hired to facilitate distance learning or home schooling — they're considered a child care program.
More: Bucks teachers continue to navigate a remote learning landscape
The state has waived certain licensing requirements, including that such child care arrangements operate for fewer than 90 consecutive calendar days. However, pods with six or more children must implement other rules, including:
– Develop a COVID-19 safety plan aligned with state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
– Develop an emergency plan.
– Obtain an occupancy permit if the program is outside a homeComply with local ordinances regarding child care operations in homes.
– Comply with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law with regard to background checks and mandatory reporting.
– Communicate with families to clearly explain program expectations and services, including the ability to support a child's work.
– Notify the Department of Human Services of your plan.
Those with fewer than six children are encouraged to follow the guidelines as "best practices," Miller said.
"We want children to be in situations where they're safe and supervised by a trusted adult; where they are able to focus on their education; and where their interactions with other people are limited so as to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission," she said. "What we don't want are parents quitting their jobs to stay at home with their school age children."