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Children must wear masks in Pa. schools; health officials wary of outbreaks on college campuses as students move in

With campuses reopening, health officials are concerned about the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks among college students.

A sign enforcing the wearing of masks at Villanova University.
A sign enforcing the wearing of masks at Villanova University.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania children who return to classrooms this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic will have to wear masks even when sitting at desks six feet apart from others, state officials said Tuesday, and will be allowed to remove them only for meals and during designated 10-minute breaks.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the updated guidance would clarify previous announcements on school masking, which had left in question whether students could go maskless when seated apart from others. The policies apply to those who are 2 and older.

And as local colleges including Temple and Pennsylvania State Universities welcome students back to campuses this week, Levine said she has been impressed by the diligence of some reopening plans. But she will be watching for flareups like this week’s outbreak at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where in-person classes were canceled after more than 100 students became infected.

”The key is going to be the compliance with the plans,” Levine said. “If young people are having very large parties, if they’re not social distancing, they’re not wearing masks, they’re not washing their hands, you’re going to have spread of COVID-19.”

With the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country approaching 5.5 million, colleges in Kentucky, Indiana, Colorado, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have reported hundreds of infections since students began returning to campuses.

Pennsylvania on Tuesday added 735 confirmed cases, a number that includes a two-day tally of 208 cases in Philadelphia due to reporting delays. The commonwealth also added 31 newly reported deaths. The state averaged 757 new cases a day over the previous week, according to an Inquirer analysis.

Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said that while the city’s daily case number Tuesday was relatively low at 84, data were showing mixed results on efforts to control the virus’ spread.

In recent weeks, daily case numbers have fluctuated slightly but not decreased. Testing has increased, but the rate of positive results from those tests is hovering at 4%, essentially the same as a week ago and below the 5% threshold that officials have pointed to as a warning sign of possible surges. More than half of new infections reported Tuesday were in residents under 40 years old.

New Jersey reported 400 new coronavirus cases and 10 deaths on Tuesday, and state officials updated the quarantine list to cover 35 states and territories, including Alaska. Delaware is also back on New Jersey’s list following a slight increase in the number of positive cases over the last two weeks. The travel advisory directs individuals to self-quarantine for 14 days if they’ve traveled from places with high coronavirus infection rates.

With a decision on fall youth sports forthcoming, Pennsylvania officials are recommending that school, recreational, and club sports be put on hold. Levine said sports that require travel could further spread the virus, and she remains concerned by the rising number of coronavirus cases in people under 19. Such cases have not so far been traced to specific practices or games, likely in part because many such activities have not taken place this summer.

» READ MORE: PIAA vows to continue push for fall sports after meeting with staff of Gov. Wolf administration

The Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee met Tuesday in the Senate chamber to discuss how the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association could safely resume competition, and the PIAA’s board of directors is set to meet Friday. If the PIAA moves ahead with the season against Gov. Tom Wolf’s recommendation, Levine said, the administration does not plan to intervene.

Gov. Phil Murphy has given his stamp of approval for high school sports to resume in the Garden State this fall, though the decision will be made by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Murphy has for weeks declined to give timelines for when indoor dining at restaurants might resume. This week, after he said indoor dining, theaters and gyms would be the last places in the state to reopen, several local business leaders said New Jersey is running out of time.

”We have already lost Memorial Day and Fourth of July business and are fast approaching Labor Day and the fall season with no indication that the governor will permit indoor dining and entertainment any time soon,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said. ”Our restaurants are dying on the vine and cannot survive on just takeout, delivery and curbside service alone.”

Murphy has said the resumption of indoor dining will require that strict parameters surrounding capacity be enforced, and that the state’s rate of infection must remain consistently low. Last week, he said he was speaking with gym owners about how to safely reopen.

As Pennsylvania looks to improve contact tracing efforts, the state will roll out a smartphone app next month that will use Bluetooth technology to alert users if they’ve spent more than 15 minutes near someone who later tests positive for the virus.

“COVID Alert PA” will be “anonymous” and “completely voluntary,” Levine said. It records only who you are around, she said, not where you are, and its data will not be used to make policy decisions or enforce quarantines. Levine didn’t give a price tag for the project or offer specifics as to how many Pennsylvanians would have to download the app in order for it to be effective.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week selected Philadelphia and four states for a pilot program to draft vaccine distribution plans. On Tuesday Farley said the race to develop a safe, effective vaccine is going well, with three companies conducting large-scale tests that could produce viable options in early 2021. The federal government has said doses could be available as soon as later this year.

With supplies expected to be limited initially, Farley said elderly Philadelphians and those with underlying conditions would be given top priority, along with their caregivers. Farley said the city will also prioritize making the vaccine available for Black Philadelphians, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic here and nationally.

Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Amy S. Rosenberg, Rob Tornoe, and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.