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Without State Rules, How Parents Learn About COVID-19 Cases Varies By District

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Michael Rubinkam
/
AP
Tiffany Shelton helps her 7-year-old son, P.J. Shelton, a second-grader, during an online class at their home in Norristown, Pa., on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Norristown Area School District plans to offer online-only instruction through at least January.

School districts across the Pittsburgh region have reported cases of COVID-19 since the academic year began, causing some districts to temporarily close schools. There aren’t, however, any set rules from the state about how a school district informs parents about a positive COVID-19 case. As a result, communication polices vary district to district.

Each school district was required to submit a health and safety plan to the state department of education this summer. The plan maps out how a school will maneuver through the academic year while the coronavirus pandemic continues.

But the level of detail in plans differs among districts.

Pittsburgh Public Schools issues releases to news outlets in addition to notifying parents through their internal email messenger system and robo-calls. Many districts post notification of a positive case on their website homepage.

This week, Bethel Park School District sent an email to families reporting a positive case within Abraham Lincoln Elementary School; the district noted that those considered exposed had already been notified with instruction to quarantine.

North Allegheny School District maintains a coronavirus tracker on its website with information about active cases, total cases and how many students are in quarantine.

Highlands School District has published a "COVID-19 decision tree" on its website to illustrate steps the district will take based on whether a student or staff member is infected and the risk of others’ exposure to the virus.  

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said many schools are relying on procedures already in place for when a student contracts measles or another communicable disease.

Pittsburgh Public Schools, North Allegheny School District and Highlands School District did not respond to WESA’s request for comment regarding their communication strategy.

According to a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Health Department, schools work with the department when someone in the district tests positive for COVID-19 to determine procedures used in the classroom and to complete contact tracing investigations. But decisions about quarantining or the type of learning—virtual, in-person or both—provided by the school are made by district officials.

Parents who wish to learn more about their school’s policy for communicating a positive COVID-19 case can find Pennsylvania school districts’ health and safety plans here.