Pa. schools get state guidance about handling COVID-19 outbreaks

The state’s largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, urged schools to follow the guidelines but said they need more teeth.

School hallway

(Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

Pennsylvania state government agencies are providing school leaders with advice about how to respond when students or employees with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been on school property, from cleaning and tracing their contacts to shutting down buildings for two weeks or longer.

The Education and Health departments late Thursday notified school administrators of the recommended procedures, which depend on how many people are infected and how widespread the disease has been growing in their county.

School leaders had sought the advice as they plan for restarting instruction this fall, said Education Department spokesman Rick Levis.

“It’s additional guidance that we’re providing to the school districts because we recognize that they’re not medical professionals,” Levis said Friday.

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In areas with low spread and just one case inside a school building over a 14-day period, the advice is to clean areas where the infected person has been and get public health agency assistance tracking their contacts.

With a few more cases over the two-week period and moderate infection spread in the county, schools are advised to clean, trace contacts and close for five to seven days.

Schools that get five or more cases should close down for two weeks and the entire building should be cleaned, the Education and Health departments suggested.

Mark DiRocco with the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators said he welcomed the indication that public health officials will play a major role in responding to cases.

“We really don’t want them to make recommendations to districts, we want them to step in and actually help,” DiRocco said.

He said it was also a good idea to have including a way for school officials to get questions answered, but stressed that it needs to produce timely answers.

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“The clock’s running out on us now,” DiRocco said. “Districts have to open their schools here in the next two to three weeks — they can’t be waiting days to get answers to their questions.”

The guidance says shutting down facilities “allows public health staff the necessary time to complete case investigations and contact tracing, and to provide schools with other appropriate public health advice like cleaning and disinfecting.”

In areas where COVID-19 is considered to be at the “substantial” level of community spread, the agencies say schools should shut their doors and operate with a “full remote learning model.”

Schools should keep people out of areas where a sick person has been, including buses and vans, and wait 24 hours before directing custodial staff to clean and disinfect. Students should not take part in disinfecting.

Public health officials do not need to be notified every time someone exhibits symptoms, but those people should be isolated and sent home with a referral to get medical attention, the state agencies said.

The state’s largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, urged schools to follow the guidelines but said they need more teeth, and called for consistent standards for social distancing and metrics to determine when schools can be open.

“We still need enforceable state rules that make it absolutely clear what school districts are supposed to do to keep everyone safe in our schools,” said union spokesman Chris Lilienthal in an email.

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