The Boyertown Area Times

Pa. partisansh­ip trumps safety

- By Paul Muschick

Five months after a dangerous situation at an Allentown child care center, the state finally has taken action to protect kids elsewhere from suffering the same fate.

The Office of Child Developmen­t and Early Learning plans to offer two free carbon monoxide detectors to every licensed child care center. The state said the giveaway was prompted by a CO leak at a child care facility last fall. The event that triggered this occurred at the Happy Smiles Learning Center in Allentown. More than 30 adults and children were hospitaliz­ed in October after a leak that stemmed from a malfunctio­ning heating system and a blocked vent. The center did not have a CO detector at the time.

That’s pretty scary. You know what’s even more scary? Pennsylvan­ia does not require child care centers to have carbon monoxide detectors. Talk about government incompeten­ce. This wasn’t just an oversight. The Legislatur­e has known about the weakness in the state safety law for at least a decade. And it’s done nothing to fix it.

Offering free CO detectors is a good first step toward rectifying that blunder. But it’s not the solution. There’s no guarantee that every child care center will accept the free detectors. What’s needed is a law requiring CO detectors.

Child care centers in Allentown must have them under a city ordinance. The ordinance was passed before the leak at Happy Smiles but wasn’t effective yet at the time, as the city was giving centers time to comply.

That needs to be a statewide requiremen­t. Some lawmakers have been trying for years. They’ve been stymied by partisan politics.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, first introduced legislatio­n to require detectors in 2014 in child care facilities that have oil or natural gas heating systems or appliances, a fireplace or an attached garage. The bill passed the Senate unanimousl­y in 2018, 2020 and 2022. That’s as far as it got. The state House didn’t act.

“They just won’t run a Democratic bill,” Fontana told me in October. “Nobody can tell me it’s a bad bill. Not one of them can say it’s not the right thing to do.”

You’d think the sight of ambulances swarming a day care center would have scared lawmakers into swallowing their politics and doing the right thing. It didn’t.

Two weeks after the incident, the Legislatur­e had a golden opportunit­y. As the Senate considered an unrelated human services bill that had been passed by the House, Fontana asked that it be amended to include the CO detector requiremen­t. He cited the Allentown incident.

“The only safe way to know if carbon monoxide is present in a building is with a working alarm. They average around $20 for a detector; it is certainly a small price tag to put on any individual’s life,” Fontana said during the debate. “It is time to make carbon monoxide detectors a requiremen­t in child care facilities in Pennsylvan­ia.”

Fontana reintroduc­ed his legislatio­n in January.

Rep. Jeanne McNeill, D-Lehigh, said she plans to introduce legislatio­n as well — again. A bill she introduced last year was buried in committee and expired.

This shouldn’t be so difficult. But there’s hope now because the political landscape has changed. If Fontana’s bill cruises through the Senate again, it can’t be blocked by Republican­s in the House. The House now has a Democratic leader.

Of course, our overpaid Legislatur­e is out of session until April 24. So it’s still going to take time.

Lawmakers shouldn’t worry about burdening child care center operators with another regulation. Cost is not a deterrent. Detectors are inexpensiv­e.

Instead, taxpayers are paying the price because the state is buying detectors for child care centers. It’s not a waste of money. The state’s job is to ensure centers are safe. Because the Legislatur­e failed to do its job, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administra­tion had to act.

But there is a tradeoff. The Office of Child Developmen­t and Early Learning purchased 7,000 detectors with $231,000 in federal child care funds — that’s $33 each. That money could have been spent on other needs if legislator­s had required child care center operators to install detectors at their cost.

The state said all licensed child care providers were sent a promotiona­l code to request two free detectors. I hope they take advantage of it. The offer ends April 30.

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