Pennsylvania education officials on Thursday encouraged school districts to bring elementary school students back to classrooms with hybrid learning models as soon as this month, a recommendation that drew immediate backlash from the state’s largest teachers’ union.
It remains up to school districts to decide when to bring students into classrooms, but the state’s top health and education officials said the benefits of in-person education for certain students outweighed the risks of spreading the coronavirus — despite ongoing substantial community spread in every county in the commonwealth.
As the nationwide debate about whether to return students to classrooms rages on, schools around the region have taken different approaches to the state’s guidance throughout the pandemic, from bringing some students back five days a week to offering only virtual learning since school buildings closed in March.
“This doesn’t accelerate our timeline to get children back,” Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday of the state’s guidance. Philadelphia schools are fully virtual.
Hite has said he’s eager to get certain groups of students — elementary school children, young people with special needs, students in career and technical programs — into classrooms as soon as possible. But there’s not yet a firm date for when that might happen.
The announcement of the new guidance, which is not a mandate and goes into effect Jan. 25, came on the same day Pennsylvania officials confirmed the new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus had been found in the state.
A Dauphin County resident was infected with the variant and recovered, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said . The new variant first raised alarm last month when it was detected spreading in the United Kingdom, contributing to record-high case counts, overwhelming hospitals, and leading to new lockdown measures. While experts say the new variant spreads more easily, there is no evidence it makes people sicker or will make the vaccines ineffective.
“Public health experts are in the early stages of working to better understand this new variant, how it spreads and how it affects people who are infected with it,” Levine said.
Pennsylvania recorded 265 deaths Thursday, pushing its two-day total to more than 630. The state also reported 9,698 newly confirmed cases.
Nationwide, the seven-day average number of new cases reported each day once again climbed above where it was before Christmas, according to New York Times data.
Pennsylvania’s new schools recommendation will replace its previous guidance, which urged elementary schools in counties with substantial community spread to keep buildings closed and teach their students remotely. That remains the sole recommendation for middle schools and high schools across the commonwealth.
Education Secretary Noe Ortega and Levine said the benefits of in-person education to the development of students in elementary school, with disabilities and in English-learning programs would be greater than the risk of spreading the virus if schools employ hybrid learning models and follow the state’s required mitigation measures.
“We know that it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely in a school setting when community spread is present,” Levine said, adding that research has shown that elementary school students don’t spread the virus easily when public health measures are taken and, if they become infected, generally experience less severe cases.
The state’s largest teachers’ union disagreed, accusing Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration of “rushing” students back into classrooms and saying that a push now to return children to school could set back reopening efforts, particularly if the state does not implement a more stringent system for tracking schools’ compliance with safety measures.
“We have 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,” Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said in a statement. “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.”
Some districts in the region already have kids in the classroom at least part-time; others were already moving toward hybrid learning. Cheltenham, for instance, plans to start returning students to classrooms Feb. 1.
In other cases, school officials said the new state guidance wouldn’t override local considerations. The Norristown Area School District, which has been virtual since last March, has already decided it won’t return to in-person instruction until case levels within the district fall below 75 per 100,000, and a 7.5% test positivity rate — thresholds that fall below what the state considers substantial transmission.
While he’s seen research indicating younger students may be less likely to spread the virus — and “are probably those that would benefit the most” from in-person instruction — Norristown Superintendent Christopher Dormer said he felt returning to classrooms was still too risky, in part due to the district’s population density and demographics.
“We know this virus is disproportionately affecting communities of color — 85% of our school district is Black and brown families. We’re putting them at greater risk” through in-person instruction, Dormer said.
Pennsylvania was “doing really well this week” in speeding up coronavirus vaccinations, Levine said Thursday, with close to 213,000 first doses administered statewide and more than 35,000 in Philadelphia to date.
Though the state still has not received a report on how many people in nursing homes have been vaccinated, which are being administered by CVS and Walgreens, Levine said Thursday that CVS had completed the majority of its clinics in Pennsylvania. She also said the Health Department was pleased with a coming federal program that will offer vaccines in retail pharmacies and said that would begin in Pennsylvania as soon as possible.
In Montgomery County, the next phase of vaccinations — for essential workers and people 75 and older — could begin by the end of the month, County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said Thursday. Like everywhere else, though, the timeline will depend on how quickly vaccine doses are delivered.
As counties and states grapple with how to identify and notify people who can be vaccinated in the next phase of the rollout, Montgomery County is working with institutions and groups that work with essential employees, such as the public school system, to make sure eligible recipients are notified.
Arkoosh, who also is a physician, said that reaching out to those who are 75 and older will “be a little more complicated,” and that once the Office of Public Health has a better idea of the timeline for when that group can be vaccinated, it will conduct outreach “much more directly.”
New Jersey on Thursday reported 6,314 newly confirmed cases, 128 deaths, and 3,711 people hospitalized with the virus.
In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the vaccines are primarily being given out by hospitals and nursing homes to employees and residents, counties are hoping to open vaccination clinics, but many are waiting to receive doses for distribution.
Camden County has a facility ready to vaccinate up to 500 people a day, but has not yet received any doses, said county official Louis Cappelli Jr. Philadelphia will open its first vaccination clinic Friday for health-care workers unaffiliated with hospitals. Montgomery County plans to vaccinate about 800 people per day at its clinic, which got up and running this week.
“We take the fight head-on to the virus as we begin mass vaccination,” Arkoosh said, later adding: “Remember, we remain in a very serious and evolving situation. Together, we have the power to keep this virus in check while we await the arrival of enough vaccine.”