State education secretary backs 'hybrid' reopening plan

PA Education Secretary Pedro Rivera speaks during the Dover Area High School Agriculture Education Recognition Day on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. This week marks the celebration for the PA Agriculture & Food Career week.  Amanda J. Cain photo

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera on Thursday endorsed a "hybrid" model for school reopening as the best option for fall.

His comments came on a media call where new state recommendations about school reopenings were announced.

"Given the fact that we’re dealing with a novel pandemic," he said, it's the best from both a public health and education perspective, but he noted there's no "cookie-cutter" approach.

A hybrid model would involve splitting students into groups that attend on specified school days so that each group gets some in-person and some virtual learning. South Western School District's reopening plan, approved Wednesday, includes a hybrid format. 

The mix would give options for differentiating the learning environment, especially for students with special needs or disabilities for whom social distancing in a regular setting might be hard, he said.

More:South Western to split students, stagger school days

A flexible setting would allow teachers to have a smaller group of students in a larger space for individualized attention, lessening their risk, he added.

Rivera said he's received more than 100 health and safety reopening plans statewide from districts, charter schools and technical schools so far.

"We all agree that being back in school is the best outcome for children," said state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, Secretary of Health meets with the media at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters, Friday, May 29, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)

It's important not just for education but other services and supports for children with disabilities, special needs and those who rely on school nutrition programs.

It would be hard to predict what would shut down schools again at this point, she said, but she warned the state is seeing increased numbers of positive cases.

More:York County has 14 new cases of COVID-19, officials warn of surge in young patients

She reiterated her guidance about making proactive choices to reduce the spread and keep students in school, such as making the choice to leave when people are not wearing a mask or not visiting those who typically don't wear masks. 

The new guidance released Thursday was drafted with input from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state health department and the American Academy of Pediatrics, she said.

It takes a firmer stance on some measures, such as symptom screenings, which must be done by parents or caregivers before students arrive at school.

Medically fragile or high-risk students must go through the screenings daily at school.

Bus drivers and passengers must wear face coverings, and the guidance recommends loading the bus back to front to limit student interaction and not seating any students in the front row.

Cohorting students so that they remain with the same groups as much as possible is reinforced, with a suggestion of assigning lockers by cohort or eliminating them altogether.

The best option is to serve individual meals and have students eat in classrooms, the guidance states.

More:Central Pennsylvania schools cancel workouts after positive tests for COVID-19

Students and teachers can still remove masks when social distancing, but the guidance adds that schools should provide breaks from face coverings throughout the day — during which social distancing must also be maintained

A big question parents have had is in regards to contact tracing and quarantining if students do get sick.

On that, the guidance recommends actions to support contact tracing, such as assigned seats, sign-in sheets and keeping track of all students, staff and contractors in each class.

For quarantining, the guidance defines "close contact" as either being within approximately 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for 15 or more minutes or having direct contact with "infectious secretions" such as being coughed on, for example.

Those who were symptomatic — but not confirmed positive — and have been fever-free for 24 hours without the aid of medicine or have confirmed an alternative diagnosis could return to school.

As with all guidance released so far, Rivera said, it's highly likely that the data or research will evolve.

School leaders must take all of the data and make decisions that best represent their needs at this time, he said.