School Closures Debated As PA Coronavirus Cases Surge

PENNSYLVANIA — Some experts and education officials are advocating for schools to go virtual, particularly around the Thanksgiving holiday, as coronavirus cases rise to alarming levels in Pennsylvania and the nation.

Experts at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab this week said they are recommending that “in areas with rapidly accelerating transmission rates (such as the Philadelphia region) schools, or families voluntarily, revert students to online learning beginning Nov. 16 until 7-10 days after Thanksgiving.”

The PolicyLab said the move to virtual learning should be prioritized for students in middle and high school.

“While we have seen increasing infection rates among child care and elementary-aged youth, their relative contribution to community burden of infection remains small. Therefore, decisions about distanced learning for younger children should be made at a local level and be responsive to the identification of linked transmission within school settings in that community,” CHOP’s PolicyLab said in an update Wednesday.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Secretary Rachel Levine said Monday there were no plans for a blanket statewide school closure. She said the issue is discussed by state officials “on a regular basis.”

At this time, she said: “We do not plan, absolutely do not plan, to have a general school closure as we had in the spring.”

This comes as Pennsylvania is reporting the highest number of new cases since the start of the pandemic.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Wednesday reported 4,711 additional positive cases of the COVID-19 virus, bringing the statewide total to 243,368. It was the highest daily increase of cases. Also Wednesday, 59 new deaths were reported, bringing the state’s total to 9,145 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

In a statement Wednesday, the state’s teachers union called on more districts to move to virtual learning. PSEA President Rich Askey pointed to the level of community spread, which is at a substantial level in 38 counties.

“The state departments of Health and Education developed these guidelines based on good science and what the infection rates are in a school’s community,” Askey said. “We must follow these guidelines to the letter. It’s the best way for us to slow the spread of this virus and keep our students, staff, and their families safe.”

Askey said “every PSEA member wants to be at school with their students” but that in-person instruction in communities with substantial spread of the virus is a health and safety risk.

“The health and safety of students, staff, and our families must be our top priority,” Askey said. “We call on all school district leaders to follow the state’s guidelines to protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities.”

But not all health experts agree that schools should close.

In a letter to school officials Wednesday, Bucks County’s top health official told districts that he “unconditionally recommends not to change the model of instruction for your school districts to virtual at this time.”

Department Director Dr. David Damsker said there is “no existing evidence, anywhere” that in-person schooling contributes to community spread of the virus, nor any that school closures would slow the spread.

In Montgomery County, officials are expected to vote on a two-week closure plan during a meeting Friday.

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information comes in.

This article originally appeared on the Across Pennsylvania Patch

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