(*This story was updated at 2:51 p.m. on 1/7/21 to include comment from Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey)
After months of strictly online or blended learning, officials at the state Department of Education are encouraging school districts in counties with a substantial level of community spread to return elementary school students, along with other “targeted populations” to the classroom for hybrid instruction.
The new guidelines, which take effect Jan. 25, are recommendations, not a mandate, and it’ll still be up to local school boards to make the final call, acting Education Secretary Noe Orgeta said Thursday during a joint conference call with state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.
“We know students — particularly younger students — benefit from being in the classroom,” Ortega said.
The state is continuing to recommend fully remote learning for middle and high school students in substantial spread counties. Through the end of December, officials said they had documented 52,917 cases of the virus among young people aged five to 18.
Levine agreed, saying, “As a pediatrician I am aware of the critical role schools play in the physical and emotional development of children.
“We know it is impossible to eliminate risk of transmission when community spread is present. But research shows that when mitigation efforts are present, it may be better for younger children to return to in-person instruction,” she continued.
Speaking to journalists Thursday, Ortega said the “targeted populations” in the new guidance include students living with disabilities, or English-language learners, who benefit from in-person instruction.
State officials have required school districts in counties with substantial levels of transmission for two weeks to switch to fully remote learning, unless they completed a form indicating they planned to continue to offer in-person instruction as long as they comply with the state’s COVID-19 mitigation rules. A map on the state Education Department’s website lists the districts that have completed those “attestation” forms.
“Our educators, school staff and communities continue to do a tremendous job ensuring schools are served. We must continue to strive to provide equitable education opportunities to our students,” Ortega said Thursday.
*In a statement, Rich Askey, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the labor group has “serious concerns about any plan to allow more students to attend school in-person without ensuring that all schools are following the state’s COVID-19 health and safety guidance.
“There is nothing Pennsylvania educators want more than to be back in the classroom with their students. But rushing students back at the height of a pandemic with no clear plan to enforce health and safety guidelines will set back our efforts to achieve that goal,” Askey continued. ” … As COVID-19 cases increase to near-record levels in Pennsylvania and as a more contagious strain of the virus has been identified here, this is no time to encourage schools to bring more students and staff in contact with one another in areas with high rates of community spread.”
Experts have warned for months about the educational risks of keeping students out of the classroom for long periods of time. COVID-inspired school shutdowns are particularly harmful to lower-income students, according to new research by Yale University economist Fabrizio Zilibotti, the Yale News reported this week.
Yale researchers found that children who live in the poorest 20 percent of U.S. neighborhoods will bear the brunt of the negative impact of school shutdowns. Researchers also predicted that the impact of the shutdown will follow students through life, with ninth graders in the nation’s poorest communities losing 25 percent of their future earning potential, even if that’s followed by three years of normal schooling, the Yale News reported, citing the research.
On Thursday, the Health Department announced 9,698 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 693,087 since the start of the pandemic. The agency confirmed 265 new deaths reported for a total of 17,179 fatalities.
Statewide, 5,613 people were hospitalized, a total nearly double the spring peak of the pandemic, the Health Department said in a statement. Of that tally, 1,120 patients were in intensive care units. The statewide positivity rate for the week of Dec. 25-31 was 15 percent.
The agency also confirmed the first case of the highly transmissible variant of the virus that first appeared in the United Kingdom. That case was detected in Dauphin County and was a result of travel, and not community spread, Levine said.
Levine told reporters Thursday that she expects to see more instances of the variant strain in Pennsylvania.
“The vaccine experts anticipate there would be no difficulty with the vaccine preventing this strain,” she said.