As school officials across Pennsylvania wrestle with how to open the rapidly approaching academic year, two state agencies have developed a new set of applicable recommendations.
On Monday, the departments of health and education announced a three-tiered system of determining relative levels of COVID-19 community transmissions within each of the state’s 67 counties.
In turn, designations of “low,” “moderate” or “substantial” are intended as guidelines for corresponding instructional models: fully in-person, a blend of in-person and remote, or fully remote.
“After months of meeting with educational leaders and stakeholders, we understood that there was a greater thirst, there was a greater need, for additional public health-related recommendations,” Pedro Rivera, state secretary of education, explained during a media-only call on Monday.
Joining him was his Department of Health counterpart, Dr. Rachel Levine.
“The idea is to provide another tool in the toolbox for superintendents and school boards to use when making their local decisions,” she said. “And they have many other variables and factors in terms of their schools that they have to consider.”
Recommendations from the state are based on two metrics for each county: incidence rate, the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the past seven days per 100,000 residents, and “PCR percent positivity.” The latter refers to a diagnostic test known as polymerase chain reaction, with the number of positive results divided by the total number of people tested.
“We’re using exactly the same metrics as the White House Coronavirus Task Force,” Levine noted.
The county designations will be updated weekly to help school leaders determine if instructional models should change as the academic year progresses. The health and education departments recommend that such changes should occur only after two consecutive weeks of the same designation.
“We know that for districts to transition from one model to another can be very disruptive for both students and families,” Matthew Stem, deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, said during the media call.
“So our recommendation is that when districts transition to a new instructional model, they take the time they need to ensure smooth transition for students before changing to another model,” he continued. “And that would include up to a whole marking period, to ensure that stability for students and families.”
School officials would be encouraged to act more quickly, though, in the event of a significant COVID-19 outbreak. Under those circumstances, the Department of Health will provide consultative assistance.
As has been the case with educators at the local level, the departments’ secretaries and members of their staffs have been receiving a mix of correspondence, from firm supporters of in-person classes to those who call for fully remote instruction.
“There really are no good choices,” Levine acknowledged. “So we have to choose the least bad choice.”