CHOP researchers call for all Philly-area schools to go fully virtual

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A major local medical authority recommends that Philadelphia-area schools go fully virtual amid record spikes in COVID-19.

The recommendation comes from the Children Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, which has been advising state and local education officials since the pandemic began.

Over the summer and fall, the PolicyLab released guidance to help schools reopen classrooms safely — but that was at a time when virus cases in the region had ebbed.

With cases surging across the region and country, PolicyLab said its epidemiological models call for more caution. Researchers now believe all schools — public, parochial, and private — should conduct classes remotely and stay remote through the winter holidays.

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PolicyLab recommends schools make the shift online by next Monday.

“We have convincing evidence that this winter wave has moved in very quickly,” said David Rubin, the doctor who heads the PolicyLab. “This is about ensuring that we have enough capacity in our hospitals to get through the holiday season. I think the worst of the pandemic is upon us.”

“This is about getting through the worst part of this crisis,” he said.

Rubin added that shutting schools down before Thanksgiving and Christmas could help dampen an anticipated viral spike triggered by family gatherings. He’s hopeful that a break from in-person school can blunt the worst of the pandemic locally and set schools up to return once the new year begins.

“[Thanksgiving and Christmas] are major transmission events given the amount of circulating infection that we’re now seeing in kids and in adults,” Rubin said. “We’re focused on these two holidays and trying to prevent transmission during the holiday season.”

He did make one caveat, saying that it might be OK for some schools serving younger students to continue operating if they’ve been able to maintain good safety protocols so far.

The School District of Philadelphia has already decided to pause its school reopening plan, which was set to begin, in phases, on Nov. 30.

There are, however, 95 charter, private, and parochial schools offering some level of in-person classes across the city, according to Dr. Thomas Farley, the Philadelphia Health Commissioner.

On Tuesday, after the School District of Philadelphia announced its plan to halt in-person school, Farley did not recommend the same for all schools, but said the district’s decision was “not unreasonable.”

The district and public health officials had been arguing that it was safe to bring back the youngest students because evidence suggests they’re least likely to spread the virus and most in need of face-to-face instruction. It’s a position some epidemiologists and countries continue to endorse, even as case-counts rise.

Philadelphia logged a record 879 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the city announced another 761 cases.

The Montgomery County Board of Health will vote on Thursday on a recommendation to shutter all county schools for two weeks starting on Nov. 23.

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The state’s largest teachers’ union — the Pennsylvania State Education Association — called on schools to follow state guidance on school reopening.

The state’s Department of Education has suggested that schools in counties where there is “substantial” amounts of COVID-19 transmission conduct all classes online.

Philadelphia and three of its four collar counties meet the statistical threshold for “substantial” transmission. The lone exception, as of now, is Chester County.

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