Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam speaks at a press conference. Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2021
To start, officials met this week with intermediate units, which serve as liaisons between the state and school districts, to hear feedback from administrators on how best to communicate and improve response times when questions arise, acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam told reporters on Thursday.
“Of course, this school year has caused a lot of questions with a lot of schools operating in-person, and we’re doing our best to evolve our process to be more responsive,” she said.
Efforts to improve communication between the state and school administrators come one week after three educators — two top administrators and one childcare facility director — said they’ve been put in the middle of the Health Department and families while adjusting to a statewide mandate.
“When people walk in and don’t have a mask, do we cause a scene? Do we create a safety issue? Do we stop the event and not allow students to participate?” Michael Bromirski, the school superintendent for the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County, testified before a Senate panel last month. “These are all those unintended consequences of rolling something out without the ability to think through the implications. And this is where we — as school leaders — have been strongly advocating for the ability to sit and talk this through.”
The biggest change between the 2020-21 school year and the current one, Beam said, is an emphasis on in-person learning. Last year, the majority of Pennsylvania schools offered hybrid or remote learning models, according to state data.
“Now, we are trying to encourage schools to do in-person education safely,” Beam said. “By way of case count, for Sept. 22 to Sept. 28, 2020, there were a total of 745 COVID-19 cases in school-aged kids compared to 7,357 cases in the same age group during the same week in 2021.”
This year, the Health Department looked to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the 2021-22 school year.
However, a team of epidemiologists — which has been used by the Health Department since the pandemic began — is available to answer questions from districts and assist with contact tracing protocols, Beam said, adding that there’s a group of staff dedicated to communicating with schools on an individual basis.
“What we’ve been working on is making sure that any routine reporting to this team is separate and apart from a school that’s actually raising their hand and saying, ‘I have [a] school circumstance that I need that one-on-one conversation with you,’” she said. “That is now going to be able to be elevated and really prioritized from our team to do the outreach.”
Before the first day of classes, Pennsylvania school boards were subject to contentious meetings over mask policies.
With the majority of districts opting for optional masking guidelines, educators were thrown into the middle of the ongoing debate over mandates when Gov. Tom Wolf and Beam announced that face coverings would be required in all public schools and childcare centers — regardless of vaccination status.
Wolf’s administration said it will review the mandate, which is still in effect, during the first week of October. Though there’s no definitive termination date, Beam said the Health Department is evaluating school-aged COVID-19 cases and community transmission rates to decide when it’s safe to lift the order.
The state is continuing efforts to promote COVID-19 vaccinations, but a mandate is not in the works.
“At this time, there is not a contemplation of requiring the vaccination within our educator population,” she said. “And of course, we’re really focusing on just having our students be able to access it — not mandate it at this point.”
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