HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Under pressure to give schools more health guidance about how to safely reopen, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration says it'll provide recommendations to school districts based on the local rate of transmission of the coronavirus.
The Department of Health said Monday it plans to provide an analysis showing the seven-day rate of transmission in each county and group those rates into three categories: low, moderate and substantial. The department’s recommendation on how to reopen would be based on those categories.
A county would be in the low category if it has an incidence rate of less than 10 cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days and a percent positivity rate of less than 5% in the last seven days. If a county is in the low category, the state would recommend that schools use a full in-person model or a blended learning model.
A county would be in the moderate category if it had an incidence rate of between 10 and 100 cases per 100,000 residents or a percent positivity rate of between 5% and 10%. In that case the state would recommend schools adopt a blended learning model or a full remote learning model.
A county would be in the substantial category if it had more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents or a percent positivity rate of more than 10%. The state recommends that schools in a county in the substantial category adopt a full remote learning model.
While a county’s transmission rate and corresponding category could change week by week, Wolf’s administration said schools should consider changing their instructional models only after looking at the past two weeks of transmission.
The recommendations rely on two standard public health metrics used by public health experts: incidence rate and the percent positivity of diagnostic testing, according to a joint news release by the state's Departments of Education and Health. The metrics are available for every county in Pennsylvania on the DOH COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard.
Both Lehigh and Northampton counties are considered to have moderate virus transmission, so the state recommends either a hybrid learning model or remote learning model.
Bethlehem Superintendent Joseph Roy said at Monday night's school board meeting that he's pleased their district model is in line with the new state guidelines. The board says 85 percent of parents said they prefer the hybrid model. But other districts in the counties have already voted on a fully-in person model option.
State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine says these are guidelines and not mandates, and districts can choose how they plan to implement them, unless there is a serious outbreak.
"We would do a deep dive on that and work with all the school districts to make a recommendation to go to full remote," Levine said.
Allentown School District has already voted to start the school year fully remote and Central Bucks School District just announced Monday it too will start with an online model. The district says not enough staff felt comfortable teaching in-person.
The state said additional guidance is forthcoming to assist school leaders when a case of COVID-19 is identified.