With classes starting soon, Wolf administration issues new guidance for safe school reopening

Schools in Pennsylvania are preparing to reopen after being closed since March. Source: WikiMedia Commons

(*This story was updated at 3:12 p.m. on 8/10/20 to include comment from the Pennsylvania State Education Association)

Pennsylvania school districts should consider two weeks’ worth of data on COVID-19 cases before they think about changing the way they deliver instruction to students, according to new Wolf administration guidance issued Monday.

“Decisions on instructional models require a great deal of consideration of local factors including size of the school entity, classroom size, school resources, proportion of staff and students with special needs and underlying health conditions, and the ability to accommodate remote learning with equal access for all students,” the guidance posted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website reads.

The recommendations were jointly issued with the state Department of Health advise school leaders to consider incidence rate and the percent positivity of cases as they make decisions about shifting from in-person to remote instruction of some blend of the two.

The metrics for all 67 Pennsylvania counties are available on the COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard, according to the Education Department’s guidance. The data “identifies thresholds representing low, moderate, or substantial community transmission of COVID-19, and corresponding instructional models recommended by the Departments of Health and Education.”

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Under the guidance, low-risk is defined as 10 new cases in the most recent 7-day period; moderate risk is defined as between 10 and 100 new cases, while substantial risk is defined as greater than 100 cases, according to the guidance.

Full in-person instruction or blended learning is recommended in low-risk counties; blended or fully remote learning is recommended in moderate-risk situations, while fully remote learning is recommended for high-risk counties.

“A county’s corresponding threshold may change week-by-week as incidence and percent positivity rates rise and fall,” the guidance reads. “In order to confirm stability of county transmission, when a county’s corresponding threshold changes, school entities should wait to see the results from the next 7-day reporting period before considering a change to their instructional models.”

In a statement obtained by PennLive, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the state remains “committed to helping our school leaders make thoughtful decisions about the 2020-21 school year, while helping Pennsylvania stem the tide of COVID-19 infections in our communities. From the beginning of this pandemic, we have said that decisions would be based on science and on data. These recommendations use that data to help schools make local decisions.”

And since the state “[unveiled its] initial public health guidance for schools earlier in the summer, both the departments of Education and Health have engaged with superintendents and other education leaders regarding their questions and concerns,” Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Matthew Stem said in a statement. “With the continued uncertainty and varying infection rates across the state, school leaders have asked for additional guidance to help them make decisions about reopening schools.”

In a statement, a spokesman for state House Republicans faulted the executive branch agencies for delivering “this late-in-the-game, patchwork approach to closing schools that provides no predictability or assurances; not for children, not for working parents, and not for educators.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other healthcare leaders have all noted the benefits to our children from a safe return to in-person education. Our children and our families deserve the best possible educational opportunities, not the additional confusion offered to them today,” House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman said.

*In a statement, Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association “strongly [encourage] all schools in Pennsylvania to follow” the new guidance.

“Doing so will ensure that Pennsylvania’s students, staff, and families stay safe, that we slow the spread of the virus, and that we know schools will be safe places to learn and work when the virus is under control,” Askey said

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press