State officials encouraged school districts across Pennsylvania to reopen classrooms and resume in-person learning for elementary students on Jan. 25 as they see fit.
“This is not mandatory,” Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said Thursday. “It’s up to school leaders whether or not local factors permit kids to return to in-person instruction.”
The guidance comes after many schools transitioned to remote learning amid an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations following Thanksgiving. Ortega said middle and high school students should continue with distance education.
Chambersburg’s schools closed its classrooms in mid-March, then switched to total virtual learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. The district partially reopened in October but closed some classrooms for two week periods when students or teachers were diagnosed positive for the COVID-19 virus.
“The commitment our educational leaders have shown toward mitigation efforts is noteworthy,” Ortega said. “(It) helps us support returning many of our youngest and most vulnerable students to some level of in-person instruction.”
He stressed, however, that a safe return to in-person instruction will look different across every school and county. That will depend on a variety of local factors, he said. Those factors were not specifically outlined.
Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said emerging research shows young children suffer fewer complications from COVID-19.
Levine: Children may be safer in classrooms
She called a total elimination of risk “impossible,” but stressed it “may be safer” for younger children to be in classrooms. She advocated in-person learning for elementary grade students particularly, as long as mitigation efforts are followed.
Hospitalizations for the virus haven fallen over the last several weeks. The majority of the cases diagnosed in children and teens occurred between October and December, however.
As of Thursday, more than 5,600 residents have been admitted for COVID-19. Of those, 1,100 are receiving treatment in the intensive care unit.
“We all play a part in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Lavine said. “The number of cases we see in children in schools very much depends upon that community spread.”
Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.