HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Under pressure to give schools more health guidance about how to safely reopen, Gov. Tom Wolf's administration said Monday that it will provide recommendations to school districts based on the local rate of transmission of the coronavirus.
The Department of Health 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. So, for areas with a low transmission rate, districts could adopt a partly remote or a full in-person instruction model.
For areas with a moderate transmission rate, districts could adopt a partly remote or fully remote instruction model.
For areas with a substantial transmission rate, the department would recommend a fully remote instruction model.
Most of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, including those in Indiana County, will be in the moderate category.
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.
According to statistical thresholds published on the governor’s website, https://www.governor.pa.gov/newsroom/, a moderate level of community transmission would be marked with an incidence of COVID-19 infection between 10 and 99 people per 100,000 population in the previous seven days — July 31 to Aug. 6, according to the online “Early Warning System Dashboard” database — or by positive results from 5 to 9.9 percent of test results recorded during the same prior week.
However, a positivity reading of 10 percent or greater, alone, would give a county a “substantial” level of community transmission, according to the governor’s guidelines.
The dashboard figures show an incidence rate of 59.2 per 100,000 residents for Indiana County, a qualifier for the moderate level of coronavirus transmission.
But while the database lists a 7.9 percent positivity rate for Indiana County — again, a “moderate” level qualifier — an independent calculation of positive results from local residents’ tests puts the percentage above 10 percent. That would indicate a “substantial” community transmission level and require all Indiana County school districts to institute 100 percent remote learning programs for at least the start of the school year.
Pennsylvania Health Department figures show Indiana County had recorded 250 positive results out of 5,638 total test results reported on July 30, the start of the measured week, and 297 positive results of a cumulative 6,106 completed tests on Aug. 6, the end of the example week. For those seven days, the county registered 47 positive results out of 468 total completed tests, which meets the minimum 10.0 percent benchmark for substantial transmission.
It also said a significant or widespread outbreak may require moving to a more remote-based model more quickly.
The Wolf administration unveiled the information after the state's school superintendents’ organization challenged it to provide more detailed public health guidance.
School boards across the state have been caught between parents worried about sending children back and threatening to take their children to cyberschools and parents demanding that schools reopen for five-day weeks of in-person instruction.
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.