State health and education officials recommended Monday that schools in most central Pa. counties offer all-remote and/or hybrid instructional models, but not a full-time in-person option, in their reopening plans.
The recommendations are the latest reopening guidance given to school districts as they approve health and safety plans required by the state.
They are based on a county’s incidence rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of positive tests revealed through diagnostic testing in the most recent week.
Counties are grouped into low, moderate or substantial categories based on those numbers. Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties, with incidence rates of between 10 and 100 and percentage of positive tests between 5% and 10% for the week that ended Aug. 7, fall into the moderate category. Perry County is the only one in the region that falls into the low category.
The moderate category corresponds to a reopening recommendation of all-remote and/or a hybrid model that combines virtual learning with in-person instruction.
Instructional recommendations for counties in the low category are full-time in-person, all remote or hybrid; while only remote learning is recommended for the one county — Union — currently in the substantial category.
Forty-one counties fall into the moderate designation, while 25 counties are in the low category.
“From the beginning of the pandemic, we have said that decisions would be based on science and/or data,” state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said. “These recommendations use that data to help schools make local decisions.”
In York County, Central York, Christian School of York, Dallastown, Dover, Eastern York, Hanover, Northeastern, Northern York, Red Lion, South Eastern, South Western, Southern, Spring Grove, West York, York City, York Tech and York Suburban have approved plans that include full-time in-person instruction options, at least for some grade levels. West Shore is opening with distance learning, and will make a decision about the rest of the year on Sept. 10.
All school districts in Adams County are providing some level of in-person learning and hybrid option with some kind of cyber school available.
In Lebanon County, all six districts are planning “at least a partially in-person return to school in late August.”
Chambersburg is going to start the school year with an all-virtual plan, it was decided at the Aug. 4 school board meeting. Other Franklin County school districts Fannett-Metal, Greencastle-Antrim, Shippensburg, Tuscarora and Waynesboro will offer in-person learning with some kind of hybrid/cyber option.
All districts have the discretion to change their plans as conditions change. Officials emphasized the latest state guidelines based on health metrics are recommendations and not mandates.
“The pandemic continues to fluctuate,” state officials said Monday. “A safe return to in-person instruction will look different across every school, district and county, depending on a variety of local factors.”
Districts can consider changing their instructional options if their low, moderate or substantial designation changes, but state health and educational officials recommended they wait at least two weeks after the designation changes before doing do.
“With the continued uncertainty and varying infection rates across the state, school leaders have asked for additional guidance to help them make decisions about reopening schools,” state Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Matthew Stern said.
“This tool responds to those requests by aligning health conditions in counties directly to recommendations for the delivery of instruction.”
The latest state reopening guidance got criticism in some circles.
“Children, parents and teachers across Pennsylvania asked for guidance and support months ago to ensure schools reopened safely and stayed open,” PA House Republican Caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman said.
“Instead, they were given this late-in-the-game, patchwork approach to closing schools that provides no predictability or assurances, not for children, parents or educators.
“The Centers for Disease Control and other healthcare leaders have all noted the benefits to our children from a safe return to in-person education. Our children and our families deserve the best possible educational opportunities, not the added confusion offered to them today.”
Pennsylvania School Boards Association Chief Executive Officer Nathan Mains said “school leaders may find challenges in assessing these latest recommendations and incorporating them into reopening plans already formulated and announced.
“But we know they will continue looking to PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education) and DOH (Department of Health) for ongoing, timely updates to best inform their evolving decisions.”