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Philly Health Department relaxes guidelines for closing schools due to COVID-19 cases

After a series of school closures so far this year, Philadelphia health officials relaxed the guidance for when schools should temporarily shut down. School administrators and parents are confused.

Kindergartners wait to start their first day of school on Aug. 31 at Powel SLAMS in Philadelphia.
Kindergartners wait to start their first day of school on Aug. 31 at Powel SLAMS in Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

After a series of school closures so far this year, Philadelphia health officials on Wednesday relaxed the guidance for when schools should temporarily shut down due to COVID-19 cases — while also calling for weekly testing of unvaccinated students throughout the city.

Schools are advised to consult with the Health Department about closing a grade if there are six cases in the grade — or closing a school if three grades are closed, or if cases reach 3% of a school’s population, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Under the department’s previous guidance, six cases in a school warranted a shift to virtual instruction. That threshold was tighter than the state’s guidance and triggered a number of closures: As of Wednesday, five city schools were closed, including three district elementary schools and two charters, according to health officials. A sixth had previously closed but reopened.

Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s acting health commissioner, said Wednesday that the new guidance “is less strict than our guidance before because we’ve seen that our other safety measures have been successful at containing spread.”

» READ MORE: How are schools deciding to close due to COVID-19 cases? It all depends.

Bettigole also said she had looked at “what we were doing in comparison to other places, the number of schools we ended up closing. And, seeing the reality on the ground of what the cases are.”

The department has also shifted its guidance to allow students to “test to stay,” permitting some children who are close contacts to remain in school rather than quarantine if they test negative for the virus. But schools have to offer rapid testing on-site in order to allow the option.

The department is also now recommending that schools test unvaccinated students weekly.

The amended guidance will likely have significant impact on the 115,000-student Philadelphia School District, most of whose students are unvaccinated. It’s unclear who would test district students — school nurses currently administer tests to children who present with symptoms during the day, but many already report being unable to complete all of their current tasks because of COVID-19 responsibilities.

“I know that the district will do everything they can to carry out this recommendation,” Bettigole said. She noted that the department’s guidance called for testing “where possible.”

Monica Lewis, a spokesperson for the district, said in a statement that the district has “worked closely with public health experts from PDPH and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to implement extensive health and safety measures in every school to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” but did not explain whether, when, or how the school system would begin asymptomatic testing of students, and whether it would adopt test-to-stay protocols.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has for weeks called for asymptomatic student testing, and news of a pivot to that recommendation left PFT president Jerry Jordan “extremely encouraged,” he said in a statement.

“It is one of the most critical ways that we can keep school buildings open,” Jordan said. But he called on the district to use federal funds allocated for COVID-19 relief to hire a vendor to “swiftly and effectively” carry out student testing, rather than use school nurses to do so.

Jordan said he could not comment further on closure guidelines without clarity from the district on asymptomatic testing.

“In the absence of tightening up of mitigation measures like mask enforcement, and in the absence of an implementation plan for asymptomatic testing, it would be irresponsible to loosen the closure guidelines,” Jordan said.

Staff at schools around the district were shaking their heads over the new guidance. Principals said Wednesday afternoon they had received no directives from either the city or district about the protocols.

Danielle Wach, a teacher at Roxborough High — where the entire ninth-grade academy and a group of special education students have been quarantined and are learning virtually — said the community is concerned that their school had more than 20 COVID-19 cases before the announcement of the new guidance but had not been closed. The shifting guidelines are confusing, and people are looking for direction, she said.

“I just kept telling my principal, this doesn’t sound right, according to what’s out there, we should be shutting down for 10 days, the whole school,” Wach said. “We’re all worried.”

Roxborough, like other district high schools, is administering state standardized tests this week. Wach wonders whether that figures into the calculus of school closing decisions.

“Is it the Keystones? They’ve closed other schools, and we’ve got high case counts, and they’re pooh-poohing us,” she said.

Jim Garrow, a spokesperson for the Health Department, said the cases were concentrated in the ninth grade, and “sporadic” cases in other grades had not prompted officials to advise a shift to virtual. However, “there are still outstanding questions” about cases at the high school, and the department’s recommendation could change, he said.

Shakeda Gaines, president of the citywide Home and School Council, is unhappy with the loosening of closing protocol.

“We cannot take chances on lives,” Gaines said. “It’s scary — one more thing to add on to parents’ already emotional and unstable lives because of COVID.”