Teresa Miller, Pa. Human Services Secretary, speaks about early childhood education at Grace Lutheran Church in Lancaster on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)
Teresa Miller, Pa. Human Services Secretary, speaks about early childhood education at Grace Lutheran Church in Lancaster on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Secretary of Human Services Teresa Miller heaped praise on early childhood education and child care providers during an appearance in Lancaster on Wednesday.

"We owe early childhood educators a debt of gratitude, always, but especially for their resilience over this last year," Miller said.

The secretary was speaking at Grace Lutheran Church, one of the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County's "Thrive to Five" partner locations.

Thrive to Five is CAP's integration of Lancaster County Head Start and CAP Child Care. It serves about 850 children across Lancaster County, about 80% of whom are funded through Head Start, director Stacy Lewis said. Thrive to 5 offers a comprehensive, wraparound approach that includes enrichment activities, health screenings and family support services.

Miller said child care venues have been conscientious about implementing safety practices during the Covid-19 pandemic, and have made heroic efforts on behalf of the families and children they serve.

Still, she said, children, parents and staff are all eager to return to normal life; and for that to happen, getting staff vaccinated against the coronavirus is a critically important step.

To that end, the Wolf administration prioritized child care workers and early childhood educators for vaccination last month through the federal retail pharmacy partnership, which provides doses directly to chains including Rite Aid, TopCo and Walmart.

The early childhood workers were given priority along with pre-K to 12th grade school educators. The latter were vaccinated through a partnership of intermediate units, health contractor AMI Expeditionary, and the Pennsylvania National Guard.

The Department of Human Services estimates that so far about half of Pennsylvania's roughly 7,000 child care facilities — totaling about 17,000 employees — have been connected to a vaccine provider, and says the remainder will be matched in coming days.

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Angela Aviles, a lead teacher in CAP's "Thrive to 5" program, said she and her colleagues felt excited and grateful to be prioritized for vaccination.

"We're so glad for this opportunity," she said.

Some early childhood facilities and their employees, Miller noted, may be finding other avenues for vaccination, now that doses are becoming more widely available. While that's reducing demand for the state's targeted vaccine initiatives, "from our perspective, that's not a bad problem to have," she said.

Miller noted she and her husband are parents of a 5-year-old daughter, whom Miller dropped off at her school Wednesday morning. It's a blessing to know she's in a safe, caring learning environment, she said.

"As a working mom, I absolutely see the value of accessible, reliable early childhood education programs every single day," she said.

Tim Stuhldreher