Pennsylvania nudged school districts to reopen elementary schools Thursday by changing its official guidance.
Prior to Thursday, the Department of Education recommended that schools in counties with “substantial” COVID-19 transmission conduct all learning remotely.
They changed that guidance to say that schools in these counties could offer in-person instruction to elementary-aged students. All counties currently have “substantial” transmission, a state-established threshold that means they recorded at least 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the preceding week.
The change in guidance will take effect at the beginning of the next semester — or around Jan. 25 — according to acting Secretary of Education, Noe Ortega.
“Schools are going to be encouraged to allow for elementary school students to return back to campus,” Ortega said at a Thursday press briefing.
The guidance is not binding, and indeed many schools have been open for weeks or months despite substantial community transmission. But the state’s recommendations still carry weight and could influence some districts to reopen in the coming weeks.
The official recommendations say that schools can have elementary kids back so long as six feet of separation is maintained among students. The state says schools can achieve this by bringing students back for half the week or using extra buildings such as secondary schools.
The state also recommends that schools “consider” offering in-person instruction to “targeted” groups such as students learning English and students with disabilities.
State officials defended this change in guidance by referencing new research on the risks of COVID-19 and the harm inflicted on the youngest online learners.
“The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting where community spread is present, recent studies have shown that when mitigation efforts, such as universal masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are followed, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction.”
New research does suggest that reopening schools in areas with moderate or low COVID transmission seems not to increase community spread. And there’s evidence that elementary-age students are less likely to transmit the virus.
That said, the research is far cloudier when it comes to opening schools in areas with significant COVID transmission.
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