What to Know
- The Philadelphia Health Department has updated its guidance on when COVID-19 cases force classes and entire schools from in-person learning.
- The new guidance is dependent on the continuation of masking in classrooms.
- City officials also want weekly testing if possible for the unvaccinated in school communities.
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The Philadelphia Department of Health on Wednesday announced an easing of when K-12 schools need to ease in-person learning amid positive COVID-19 tests, while also stressing the importance of testing unvaccinated people, which includes every student 11 and under.
Philadelphia’s Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole made the announcements at a Wednesday morning Zoom news briefing.
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"We need our kids learning in person," she said while noting the health benefits of having children in classrooms.
New Rules for Pausing In-Person Learning
As of Wednesday, this is the new guidance on when in-person learning must be paused for 10 days, which the health department says falls in line with federal guidance:
- If a class (defined as 35 or fewer people) has one to two cases over the past two weeks, then close contacts must quarantine for a period of 10 days.
- If a class has three cases, then the whole class must quarantine. At that point, close contacts within that entire learning cohort of up to 100 people are subject to quarantine
- If four or more cases, classes and cohorts must be quarantined and the city should be notified. Close contacts within the school or grade should also be quarantined.
- If two or more cohorts within a grade or six or more cases in that grade are reported, then the health department must be notified and close contacts quarantined.
- If three of more grades are in quarantine or 3% or more of the school population is infected then the health department must be notified for further guidance on pausing in-person learning for the entire school.
"Close contacts are defined as those individuals that have been within 6 feet for 15 minutes masked or unmasked," the health department notes on its website.
"CDC recommends the most protective quarantine period as 14 days; however, quarantine can be shortened to 10 days," the city said. "Quarantine can be further shortened to 7 days with a negative test after day 5."
The exact length of quarantine depends on vaccination status and other factors that be found on the city's website.
"Fully vaccinated close contacts do not have to quarantine but should undergo testing 3-5 days after exposure," the city says on its website.
Health officials noted that the new rules are less strict than the previous six cases within a school causing a closure. As of Wednesday, there were at least five schools paused under the previous guidance.
There was concern that siblings could be driving up case counts in schools under the earlier rules.
"For example, you could have a few households of siblings who test positive -- that doesn’t really mean there’s in school spread -- so there isn’t a need to close the school," Bettigole said. "But, according to our previous criteria, you might have had to."
Everyone inside school buildings must be masked outside of when they are eating or drinking, Bettigole reiterated.
"Schools must maintain physical distancing when they can," the acting health commissioner said.
COVID Testing for Schools
The city is also calling on expanded testing in schools, up to weekly for unvaccinated students, teachers and staff when possible.
"Schools are encouraged to follow CDC guidance regarding screening testing," the health department says. "CDC currently recommends that screening testing should be offered to students who have not been fully vaccinated when community transmission is at moderate, substantial, or high levels; and screening testing should be offered to all teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated at any level of community transmission. Resources may not allow for weekly testing, but best efforts should be made where possible."
The Philadelphia teacher's union applauded the testing of asymptomatic students.
"I am extremely encouraged that the PDPH is heeding our calls for asymptomatic student testing," Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said.
Philadelphia Hits Vaccine Milestone
On Wednesday, Bettigole announced that the city and its partners have now administered their 2 millionth COVID vaccine dose.
"2 million vaccines in 9 months," she said, while noting the accomplishment.
At least 83.6% of adults in Philadelphia have gotten at least one dose and the city could hit 70% of adults fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, Bettigole said.