School districts in Pennsylvania are now being encouraged to bring elementary students back into the classroom at least part-time, while middle and high school students continue to learn remotely in the coronavirus pandemic.
The state's education department sent updated guidance to schools Thursday, telling districts to shift young students, who have learned virtually for months, to a hybrid model of education.
The recommendation takes effect Jan. 25. District leaders will have to decide individually to bring back elementary and special needs students.
On Thursday, the union that represents thousands of Pennsylvania teachers spoke out against the plan.
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“As COVID-19 cases increase to near-record levels in Pennsylvania and as a more contagious strain of the virus has been identified here, this is no time to encourage schools to bring more students and staff in contact with one another in areas with high rates of community spread," said Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
“The most important thing state government can do at this point is ensure that schools are complying with the state’s health and safety guidance. Right now, we still don’t have a clear, statewide process to ascertain whether schools are following rules designed to keep students, staff, and their families safe.”
Officials said there was inherent risk in bringing students and teachers back together during the pandemic, but that the youngest students are less likely to spread the disease.
“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,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement.
Schools were required to attest that they will strictly enforce mask policies.