Rising COVID-19 cases can’t deter Delaware Valley schools from continuing their hybrid learning model, as they both re-affirm their existing safety measures and reassure parents they are going to maintain some classroom time in their children’s educations. The exception is Montgomery County, which will take a two-week “all-virtual” hiatus starting Monday.
Pennsylvania’s seven-day case count was higher than 26,000 this week and 21 more counties have increased to “substantial” transmission for a total of 59 out of 67 counties, including the four Delaware Valley counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester. (The Pennsylvania Department of Health designates counties either ‘low,’ ‘moderate,’ or ‘substantial’ status based on case counts.)
Throughout the current increase, all eyes have on Harrisburg with expectations of new restrictions. But Gov. Wolf has not imposed anything new, instead highlighting the restrictions that have stayed in place since the beginning of the pandemic.
“The fall surge in cases is something we expected and were prepared for and we’ve learned a lot since the spring, but as I’ve said many times, the virus goes where it wants, we must do all that we can to ward it off and protect ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our health care systems,” Wolf said. “The current mitigation efforts and orders in place are more important than ever. We must unite against COVID and follow these orders.”
The current statewide guidelines do not impose any specific restrictions on schools but point to CDC guidance. Philadelphia imposed new restrictions this week, requiring colleges and high schools to go online until January. Middle and elementary schools can remain open with universal mask-wearing and social distancing.
Some schools have already planned out what a return to online learning might look like. On Nov. 6, responding to rumors in the community that learning might have to go virtual, superintendent of the Garnet Valley School District Marc Bertrando wrote in an open letter to the community that there were only a few factors that would prompt such a return.
“We will continue to monitor cases in accordance with the emerging guidance and report it to the community,” Bertrando said. “However, we all know that change emerges quickly during the pandemic, and we need to be prepared in the event the district should need to switch back to virtual learning.”
Bertrando pointed to four factors that might bring all classroom instruction to an end: mandated recommendation from the Department of Health, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, or Chester County Health Department; confirmed linked-transmission of cases within schools; far-reaching spread within the community that could not be contact-traced; or a staffing shortage that prevented follow-through on safety precautions.
This guidance has been part of meetings between area superintendents and the Chester County Health Department.
Though there are no new restrictions and hybrid learning models have generally progressed with few transmissions, local officials are already looking at Thanksgiving break with trepidation. They fear holiday family gatherings may cause increases in transmission.
On Friday, the Montgomery County Board of Health approved a plan for schools to go full remote from November 23 through December 6 to decrease exposures between children who may attend family gatherings around the holiday. But many parents oppose this approach, concerned about properly educating their children from home while also working full-time.
GVSD, considering advice and guidelines from area health departments, is not currently planning to implement the Montgomery County Board of Health’s plan, according to the district’s Communications Director Joanmarie Curtis. GVSD is currently under the jurisdiction of the Chester County Health Department, because though the school district is located in Delaware County, Delaware does not have its own health department.
“At the moment, we are being supported by the [Chester County] Department of Health, as far as our hybrid learning goes. We’re going to continue to implement that model, and go program-by-program,” Curtis said to the Delaware Valley Journal. “If there is a need for any of the programs to close, we will do that piece-by-piece. Unless there is a statewide mandate, we’re going to continue with our efforts to keep children in schools.”
GVSD has only had one instance of student-to-student transmission, in a special education program in which students’ learning needs prevent them from wearing masks. The program was halted on Oct 29, and was reinstated Nov 12. In total, only two students tested positive.
“As cases pop up, we’re able to quarantine the people they interacted with,” Curtis said. “Only within that one program have we had linked cases.”
Restrictions in Pennsylvania so far have favored keeping children in school. Rather than shutting down classrooms, they’ve emphasized social distancing and mask wearing, as well as limited non-essential public activities like dining indoors at restaurants. Data from contact tracing at area schools thus far supports this approach. Schools have not experienced any major outbreaks thus far.
“What we’re seeing in our community is that cases are not happening within the schools,” Curtis said. “They’re coming from outside, related to adults that are attending social gatherings, going to restaurants, or for those that go to hospitals or doctor’s offices for work. Other than that one instance in the special education program, we have not seen student-to-student contracting. Our method seems to be working very well.”