Despite past success, Pa. may not be able to track spread of COVID-19 in schools, officials say

Since Pennsylvania reported its first cases of COVID-19 in March, the state has closely tracked outbreaks in nursing homes, prisons and day cares, publishing detailed data to show how those congregate settings affect local case rates. 

But replicating that approach may not be possible in schools this fall, as students and staff kick off classes with a patchwork of remote and in-person learning, the Department of Health said Wednesday.

State officials say that the sheer number and variety of instruction plans in Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts will complicate efforts to trace COVID-19 cases back to schools, and to publicly report data on school-level transmission.

Children in hybrid school settings may go from school to daycare while their parents work this fall, or attend school in-person only part of the week, Health Department spokeswoman April Hutcheson told the Capital-Star. 

A child who tests positive for COVID-19 may be enrolled in a school district, but only attending classes online, Hutcheson said. 

Those factors make it difficult to definitively say whether a child contracted COVID-19 in school, she said.

“It is extremely complex,” Hutcheson said, adding that it will take “a very detailed investigation” by state contact tracers to identify school-based transmission.

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine also confirmed on Wednesday that schools are not required to notify the state of positive COVID-19 cases among their students and staff. Instead, outbreaks in school buildings will be uncovered by the state’s testing and tracing systems, she said. 

“There is no requirement for the school district to notify us,” Levine said, when she addressed reporters with officials from the Departments of Human Services and Education. “We are going to find out through a completely different mechanism.”

Levine said that cases among Pennsylvania school children and staff will be treated just like any other: The state will receive COVID-19 test results from a lab, then assign case investigators to call patients who test positive, she said. 

Those investigators will ask patients where they went, and who they had contact with, in the days before their test. Contact tracers will then notify those people of their potential exposure to a COVID-19 patient. 

Contact tracing can help identify infection hotspots and contain outbreaks. 

Levine said Wednesday the state’s tracing system is currently able to respond to most positive tests within 24 hours, and that it “is developing the complement” to maintain that efficiency in the fall. 

That will allow it to identify COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, Levine said, even though experts say Pennsylvania’s program is understaffed, and state officials say that COVID-19 patients do not reliably pick up the phone when case investigators call. 

Pennsylvania has largely left it up to its 500 public school districts to decide how to operate this fall, giving them options to offer remote or hybrid instruction if they can’t open their doors five days a week. 

Schools have to adopt health and safety plans to the state before they can resume classes. 

Those plans outline steps they’ll take to prevent COVID-19 transmission in school, and should also lay out plans for alerting parents and community members of COVID-19 cases, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said Wednesday.

Hutcheson said Wednesday that the state is committed to publishing data that will help parents decide whether or not to send their kids to school. 

But the state does yet know how it will publicly report cases at the school building or district level. 

“We’re working with PDE on the best way [to] communicate all that information,” Levine said. “We’re coming to ground on that, and we will be evaluating that data really closely.”

No federal agency is tracking COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, leading some local governments and research institutions to step in with their own data collection projects. 

But the current public health strategy in Pennsylvania falls short of what other states have chosen to do as students and staff tentatively return to classrooms.

In Texas, for instance, state health officials require schools to notify them within 24 hours if they learn of a COVID-19 case on their campus.

The state will also soon begin publishing weekly reports of COVID-19 cases in schools, the Texas Tribune reported.