New COVID guidelines could mean fewer school closures this fall

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Students arrive on the first day of school at Valley View Elementary School in Spring Garden Township, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Just a couple of weeks into the school year, many York County school districts are already racking up COVID-19 cases.

But that doesn't mean closures will happen anytime soon. 

New guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health allows K-12 schools to record more COVID-19 cases within 14 days before a potential closure, compared with last year. The higher thresholds were implemented in an effort to maintain in-person learning as much as possible.

All of this was set before Gov. Tom Wolf's administration handed down a statewide mask mandate for schools. Nonetheless, the higher thresholds have drawn some criticism from public health experts.

"If anything, we should have been more conservative," said Temple University Epidemiologist Krys Johnson. 

More:Masks will be required in all schools in Pennsylvania, Wolf to announce

Johnson noted that the delta variant, which prompted the mask mandate, is two to three times more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strain. Even with universal masking, she said there will still be times when students are not wearing masks, such as in school cafeterias, where the disease can easily spread.

According to a state health department presentation, K-12 schools may suspend in-person learning up to 14 days if at least 5% of a school's population records confirmed cases within a 14-day window. For smaller schools with fewer than 500 students and staff, this puts the threshold at 25 cases, and for larger schools with more than 900 people, the threshold is 45 cases. 

More:Traditions, with a twist, for returning students required to mask

The state may also recommend a 14-day closure if there are at least three simultaneous COVID-19 outbreaks among classrooms or core groups in a school. However, neither of these criteria will automatically trigger a closure. The department recommends that if either criteria is met, a school district should reach out to the state agency or other local health officials for further guidance. 

Last year, temporary school closures were an almost daily occurrence across York County, mainly due to the attestation form all local school districts signed in order to keep schools open as much as possible. Districts were required to follow the state's universal mask mandate and follow state guidelines for school closures while York County was classified in substantial spread. 

School closures were frequent because the threshold for closing a building was much lower. Some districts closed schools when as few as two cases were recorded within 14 days, but the length of those closures was also shorter. Some schools were only closed for one day before reopening for in-person classes. 

The higher threshold would put students and staff at risk if not for the mask mandate, said Casey Pinto, a public health expert and professor at Penn State University. Masks should allay those fears, she said.

"What we've seen over the past year is that masks work," Pinto said. 

Pinto said she doubts there will be many school closures going forward. Though it may pose health risks from the pandemic, Pinto said the choice will preserve in-person learning, which will benefit the mental health of many students and teachers. 

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Remote learning was common in York County last school year, with several school districts operating fully remotely or under a hybrid schedule for most of the year. By the end of the year, most districts returned to in-person learning, after health and education officials determined it to be the most effective model for students.  This year, all 16 districts have returned to full-time in-person learning as their primary model. 

Second grade teacher Cheryl Johnson, left, talks to Dylan Sorkin, 7, right, during the first day of class at Valley View Elementary School in Spring Garden Township, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which recently supported the new mask mandate, is "perfectly comfortable" with the department of health's higher threshold for school closures, according to spokesman Chris Lilienthal. He said in-person learning is a top priority, and layered mitigation strategies like the mask mandate and high rate of teacher vaccinations will help schools stay open. 

Lilienthal estimated that between 85% and 90% of all state educators are fully vaccinated, largely due to Wolf's push to vaccinate all Pennsylvania educators in the spring. However, Johnson warned that the U.S. has not reached herd immunity and likely won't reach it for a while. 

Currently, children under 12 cannot receive a COVID-19 vaccine, which Johnson said represents about 15% of the national population. To reach herd immunity, she said 100% of the remaining population would need to get vaccinated, which is unlikely. This poses a higher risk to schools, as she said children can transmit the disease as easily as adults. 

"(The coronavirus) is something that is evolving," Johnson said. 

READ MORE: With limited state guidance, York County schools lack clear plan for COVID-19 tracking