17870 DOH Corona Update

Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a press conference, announcing the eleventh presumptive positive case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Pennsylvania, inside PEMA headquarters on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

HARRISBURG – The state Department of Education on Monday released new guidance to help schools determine if they should open for in-person instruction, use a hybrid of in-person and online instruction, or use completely virtual classes due to the prevalence of coronavirus in the community.

Based on the data from last week, schools in Somerset, Montour, Snyder, Venango and Warren counties would be among those in which in-person instruction is considered appropriate.

Cambria, Crawford, Lawrence, Mercer and Northumberland county schools would be best-suited for either hybrid-learning with partial in-person classes and partial online, or full remote learning, based on last week’s data, according to the PDE data.

Based on the state's metrics, Union County is the only county in the state in which the schools are being recommended to use online instruction based on the level of coronavirus in the area, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.

Levine said Union County's outbreak is mainly at a federal prison, but she said that because employees live in the community, the potential threat to the community remains.

"We remain committed to helping our school leaders make thoughtful decisions about the 2020-21 school year, while helping Pennsylvania stem the tide of COVID-19 infections in our communities,” Levine said. “From the beginning of this pandemic, we have said that decisions would be based on science and on data. These recommendations use that data to help schools make local decisions.”

The recommendations rely on two standard metrics used by public health experts: incidence rate and the percent positivity of diagnostic testing.

The metrics are available for every county in Pennsylvania on the DOH COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard.

The state data shows that COVID-19 spread in Union County was “substantial” last week, meaning the county’s school districts should be operating only online.

The data and guidance will be updated each week, according to PDE.

Based on this public health data and threshold measurements from the federal Coronavirus Task Force, the planning tool designates each county as having a low, medium or substantial risk of community transmission. In turn, those designations align to recommended instructional models, including fully in-person, fully remote, or blended/hybrid models.

The metrics and designations will help school communities make decisions throughout the school year and determine if, and when, they should transition instructional models as conditions related to the pandemic continue to fluctuate. A safe return to in-person instruction will look different across every school, district and county depending on a variety of local factors.  

While a county’s corresponding threshold may change week by week, DOH and PDE recommend that schools consider changing instructional models only after observing two consecutive weeks of the same designation. For example, a school offering a blended/hybrid model in a county identified as “moderate” might consider transitioning to a fully in-person model if the county moves to “low” for two consecutive weeks. It is important to note that a significant or widespread outbreak may require moving to a more remote-based model more quickly. The Department of Health will provide proactive consultative assistance to school entities should such an outbreak occur.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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