(The Center Square) – Dozens of Pennsylvania schools are returning to remote learning in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases across the commonwealth, despite conflicting concerns about the move.
At least 88 schools in the School District of Philadelphia shifted Monday to online only classes because of staffing issues related to the pandemic, following other school districts across the state that delayed a return to in-person classes after the holiday break.
“Omicron continues to impact staffing in our schools and central offices. We ask for your patience as we conduct daily reviews to inform school-by-school decisions as quickly as possible,” Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite wrote in a prepared statement. “During these reviews, we assess a range of information such as COVID-related staffing data, temporary measures the school can take to keep their schools operating smoothly, and how we can deploy Central Office staff to help maintain safe and orderly school environments.”
The announcement followed a Friday ultimatum from the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania to pause in-person learning for two weeks or to implement a series of demands to mitigate the spread of the omicron variant.
“Ideally, we would keep all schools open for in-person learning all the time. However, that has become untenable with the rising rate of infection of teachers and a shortage of qualified substitute teachers,” AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg said. “Therefore, we are asking the Pennsylvania Department of Education to reinstate COVID mitigation layers in all school districts, rather than the current patchwork that exists.
“This includes negotiated vaccination mandates for educators and school staff, masking requirements with KN95 masks or greater, and asymptomatic and pool testing of students and staff regardless of vaccination status. If these layers of mitigation cannot be instituted in a timely manner, we believe there is no choice but to pause in-person learning for two weeks.”
The demands conflict with advice from experts at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which adjusted recommendations Friday on testing students and staff and shortened recommended quarantine times.
“With evidence that COVID-19 is becoming a milder infection in most children, and at a time when all adults and youth in K-12 settings have been offered vaccination, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and PolicyLab at CHOP support in-person education, even in times of significant community transmission, and propose new guidance that reduces excessive burden to school staff and families,” according to a CHOP statement.
CHOP recommendations include continued indoor masking, allowing a return to school five days after infection, allowing exposed but asymptomatic staff and students to continue attending school, and encouraging vaccines for students and staff. The recommendations also advise schools to discontinue required weekly testing of asymptomatic students, teachers and staff.
“Now, with limited access to testing at community sites and many schools overwhelmed with contact tracing and required testing solutions that are no longer feasible or sustainable, the time has come to pivot towards solutions that prioritize normalization of in-school education across all communities alongside practical safety measures,” the advice reads.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has not yet responded to the conflicting advice for commonwealth schools.