With many public school districts in Pennsylvania facing closures due to COVID-19 restrictions, parents are wondering whether state and health officials will mandate a potential vaccine for students in order to continue in-person learning.
As Pennsylvania faces its most dangerous coronavirus surge, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the commonwealth could have the vaccine “within the next month” if federal approval remains on track.
However, state health officials said Monday that once a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, it will be optional for the state’s K–12 public school students.
“We have no plans to make the COVID-19 vaccine required for anyone, including for school children,” Health Secretary Rachel Levine said.
In the first phase of distributing the vaccine, doses will likely be prioritized to high-risk workers in health care settings, first responders, other essential workers, people with pre-existing health conditions and adults in long-term care.
Levine noted that there have not been adequate studies done on children under 18 years of age yet with the vaccines.
“So, we’ll wait and see what the science tells us in terms of the vaccine in young people,” Levine said. “We expect it to be safe and effective but we’re going to have to prove that.”
There are also no plans to use schools to distribute the vaccine.
“We’d be working more through the healthcare system including when the time comes where children are indicated to receive the vaccines through their healthcare personnel, pediatricians, family physicians and perhaps pharmacies,” Levine said. “So, we’re still working out that plan. But, again, the vaccines aren’t licensed for children.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported an additional 4,268 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday with 5,529 cases reported Sunday, bringing the statewide total to 361,464.
Pennsylvania public schools in counties that have experienced a “substantial” level of transmission of COVID-19 for at least two consecutive weeks, had until Monday to plead their case to the commonwealth if they want to continue teaching students in-person.
If these schools have not already transitioned to a full remote learning model, administrators had to submit an attestation order to the state, affirming they’re complying with state health orders — such as the use of face coverings indoors — and have proper precautions in place.
The attestation form leaves the educational model decisions to local officials, while serving as a checks and balance system to ensure students and staff are kept safe, she said.
“All of us have a responsibility to slow the spread of this virus so our children can stay or return to the classroom,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.
Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey called the new state directive for schools a “step in the right direction.”
“PSEA continues to call on school district leaders to follow all of the state’s public health guidelines without exception,” Askey said in a statement. “Doing so remains the best strategy for slowing the spread of the virus and keeping all our students, staff, and their families safe.”
If public schools in areas of substantial community spread failed to send the form in by 5 p.m. Monday, they will be required to transition to fully remote instruction until the county no longer has substantial community spread.
This includes suspending all extracurricular activities, according to the governor’s office.
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