Gov. Tom Wolf 001.jpg

Gov. Tom Wolf talking to the Indiana Gazette news staff.

With three weeks to go before summer vacations end in some Indiana County school districts, Gov. Tom Wolf today recommended in counties like Indiana, with certain levels of COVID-19 infections and rates of increases in cases of the illness, the school districts should scrap full in-person education and at least provide “blended” schedules of online and classroom instruction.

The governor’s office today issued recommendations for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade programs for “Determining Instructional Models during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The document makes clear that it is not an order, but advice.

The guidelines are issued after most school districts have laid out their opening day plans. Some are set to open all their classrooms to all their students, while others are offering or devising online learning alternatives as a choice for families to consider.

“In response to school leaders’ need for additional guidance as to the risk of COVID-19 transmission in their communities, the Departments of Health and Education are providing recommendations” for schools to consider when deciding how to reopen for the 2020-2021 school year.

Indiana County coronavirus outbreak statistics displayed on the website’s “Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard” show that the percent of positive results among tests given in the seven-day period used for the measurement (July 31 to Aug. 6) was 7.9 percent, a benchmark that alone signals a “moderate” level of community transmission and, therefore, brings the state’s guidance of either blended or full remote learning when school begins.

A second marker in the state’s calculations is the difference in the number of positive tests results for the week ending July 30 compared to the week ending July 6.

From the earlier week to the more recent week, the count had two fewer positive tests results.

But the qualifier for being placed in the moderate transmission range is for the county to meet either but not necessarily both of the threshold factors.

The state could possibly roll the statistics to determine actual opening day recommendations, for example comparing the positive test numbers and percentages recorded this week against the results of tests recorded next week to judge where the county’s coronavirus transmission rate lies.

As with all previous guidelines and orders issued by the governor since March 13, none are immune to change.

In a statement, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association called the guidance “warranted” and said it will help school leaders make informed decisions. But it criticized the timing, with some districts opening within two weeks after weeks or months of planning.

“The timing of its release is at a point where school leaders are far along the path of planning for school reopening,” the organization said.

District leaders can assess new information, but it may be challenging to incorporate this latest set of guidance into their reopening plans at this stage, it said.