COVID-19 tracking varies widely among York County schools

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Central York School District's COVID-19 dashboard as of Jan. 27, 2021.

At least three York County school districts did not immediately shutter buildings after enough COVID-19 cases were reported to warrant temporary closures under a state guidance. 

School districts across York County have different approaches to documenting active COVID-19 cases, and some are more transparent than others. Meanwhile, state agencies are largely relying on the districts to enforce their policies. 

All 16 York County school districts signed an attestation form in November in accordance with an order by Gov. Tom Wolf, agreeing to comply with several state safety regulations in order to keep their schools open. Districts that did not sign the form would have to operate fully remotely until the county no longer saw substantial COVID-19 spread.

One of the regulations requires districts to close school buildings temporarily when a threshold of COVID-19 cases is reported within a 14-day period, based on the size of the building. 

The guidance spurred frequent closures across the county since the districts signed the forms. Just this week, six York County schools closed after recording enough cases to close for at least three days, according to the form. 

More:All York County school districts signed Wolf's form to stay open

More:West York Middle School, Dillsburg Elementary close for 3 days due to COVID-19

More:Central York High School, William Penn close temporarily due to COVID-19 cases

But some schools did not close, even after recording enough cases to meet the requirement. 

Central York High School recorded seven new COVID-19 cases within 14 days as of Jan. 19, according to Central York School District's Twitter page. The threshold to close for a school that size is six to 10 cases within 14 days. The high school remained open all of last week, and district officials announced its temporary closure Monday after the school's cases reported within the previous 14 days increased to 10.

The district originally planned to reopen the high school Thursday, but extended the closure until Feb. 1, according to a district announcement. The announcement said the extension "is an attempt to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19" in district facilities. The district did not report any additional cases at the high school. 

Central York School District officials declined an interview for this story. In a frequently asked questions section of the district's website, the district states that reaching six cases "does not automatically trigger a closure." The district claims that staffing shortages can also spur a temporary closure. 

Principal Michael Snedden welcomes students to York Suburban Middle School as they return for the first time in six months following the COVID-19 shutdown, Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Sixth and ninth grade students started a day earlier than the rest of the district due to moving up to bigger schools.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Dover Area High School also reached six cases within 14 days earlier this year and did not immediately close, according to Superintendent Tracy Krum. She said three of the six cases were adults who had no contact with any other people in the building, and she determined that didn't warrant a closure. Within a few days, more cases were reported, and the high school eventually closed for three days. 

"I don't play games with the numbers, but I'm reasonable," Krum said. 

Northeastern High School recorded nine COVID-19 cases within 14 days as of Monday, but district officials did not close the school until Wednesday. As of Wednesday, the school was operating online for the rest of the week. 

Superintendent Stacey Sidle said the high school could still be open this week, because the school is still within the threshold of six to 10 cases. She said district officials work closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the department only ordered the district to close a school once — when Conewago Elementary reported four cases, enough for a small to medium-sized school to temporarily shut down. 

After waiting two days, Sidle said she decided to close the Northeastern High School for three days because it was the safer option. She said district staff clean the schools every day, but the closure would give employees more time. 

Most school districts, including Central York, Dover and Northeastern, have data dashboards on their websites for the public to track their active COVID-19 cases. The depth of the information available varies from district to district. 

Dover Area School District has one of the most thorough dashboards in the county, documenting how many COVID-19 cases and quarantined individuals are linked to each school and its administration building within 14 days, noting which buildings are open and closed, and offering a full breakdown recording when each COVID-19 case and quarantine took place since the start of the school year. 

Other districts took different strategies to document their COVID-19 cases. Northern York County School District Superintendent Steven Kirkpatrick sends letters to families multiple times a week about the district's active cases, which are available on the district website. Some of these letters give information about the COVID-19 cases reported across the district, while others just give updates on cases reported at individual buildings. 

The Hanover Public School District also posts messages from Superintendent John Scola frequently on its website. The letters notify families when a new COVID-19 case was reported at a school, gives details of the circumstances and shares if the school will remain open. But none of the letters discloses how many total cases are reported for any of the district's schools. 

The York Dispatch could not reach officials from Northern York County School District or Hanover Public School District for comment on this story. 

School districts are largely responsible for enforcing the state policy on closures. Krum said the Department of Health has a hotline where people can report districts violating the attestation form. Other than that, Krum said, she has no idea how state officials are keeping track of the districts' compliance. 

Even if state officials found a district to be in violation, Krum said she doubts they would force the district to close its schools, especially after the state released a recommendation earlier this month for districts to open elementary schools for in-person learning. 

More:Most York County school districts out ahead of new state guidance

Kendall Alexander, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said in an email that the Department of Health sends her department complaints about district compliance, but did not mention any other ways state officials ensure districts are following the attestation form. 

Alexander said the complaints are "handled on a case-by-case basis," and at minimum Department of Education staff will discuss the complaints with officials from the school district. She did not mention a maximum measure the department would reach to enforce the policy. 

"The health and safety of students is the responsibility of school administrators and locally elected school boards," Alexander said in the email. "That responsibility existed before the pandemic, and that remains the same now with the additional mitigation requirements."