FILE - School classroom

(The Center Square) – State officials encouraged districts across Pennsylvania to resume in-person learning for elementary students on Jan. 25 as they see fit. 

“This is not mandatory,” Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said Thursday. “It’s up to school leaders whether or not local factors permit kids to return to in-person instruction.”

The guidance comes after many schools transitioned to remote learning amid an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations following Thanksgiving. Ortega said middle and high school students should continue with distance education. 

“The commitment our educational leaders have shown toward mitigation efforts is noteworthy and helps us support returning many of our youngest and most vulnerable students to some level of in-person instruction,” Ortega said. “We must remember that a safe return to in-person instruction will look different across every school and county depending on a variety of local factors.” 

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said emerging research shows young children suffer fewer complications from COVID-19. 

“While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting where community spread is present, recent studies have shown that when mitigation efforts, such as universal masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are followed, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction,” she said.

Hospitalizations for the virus haven fallen over the last several weeks, though the majority of the cases diagnosed in children and teens occurred between October and December. 

As of Thursday, more than 5,600 residents have been admitted for COVID-19 and 1,100 are receiving treatment in the intensive care unit.

"We all play a part in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our communities and the number of cases we see in children in schools very much depends upon that community spread," Levine said.

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.