At least 71 Pennsylvania students have tested positive since the start of the school year, according to data compiled by the National Education Association.

That doesn’t include a Shikellamy High School student who district officials announced on Friday tested positive for COVID-19 after being sent home after reporting feeling ill in homeroom on Tuesday. Shikellamy officials said that there was no immediate plan to close the school, based on state guidelines which indicate that a single COVID-19 case doesn’t require closing the entire school.

Those cases come as lawmakers, policy makers and local school officials grapple with the question of whether schools should be offering in-person instruction.

The state House passed legislation this week that would allow families to demand that their children get another year of schooling if the parents feel like the district’s efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus shortchanged their children academically.

State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford County, said that the legislation is intended to be an option for families regardless of whether the school district has moved to fully-remote or is offering some in-person instruction.

The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state House, by a vote of 197-5. It’s path forward isn’t clear. The state Senate hasn’t announced plans to move the bill and the Pennsylvania School Board Association is opposed to measure, said Annette Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the school board group.

“PSBA supports local control and believes these decisions are best-made at the local level. With respect to HB 2788, only the school district administrators and local school leaders can appropriately look at the impacts of students extending their K – 12 educational years, and the ability for their specific district to support this action,” she said.

Roughly 70% of Pennsylvania schools have plans in place for either full-time in-person instruction or hybrid plans that include some in-person instruction, according to the state Department of Education.

But with the outbreaks, those plans for in-person instruction are already being tested.

Thursday, the Mount Carmel School District, like Shikellamy, in Northumberland County, and State College Area School District in Centre County, both announced they were switching to remote learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks in their schools. Tuesday, the Salisbury Elk Lick School District in Somerset County announced it was closing for a day after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, as well.

State guidelines for closing schools due to COVID-19 outbreaks include:

-- If there are between 2-4 cases in a school building, the Department of Heatlh recommends closing the school for 3-5 days in areas with low coronavirus transmission, 5-7 days in areas with moderate community spread of the virus;

-- If there are five or more cases in a school or more than one school in the district has 2-4 cases, the state recommends closing schools for 14 days.

Speaking to reporters last week, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said education officials recognize how quickly COVID-19 outbreaks can flare up in schools, so local leaders should be planning for it.

“We understand the volatility of COVID-19 and how quickly transmission can happen,” Rivera said.

Many school districts have included opportunities for virtual learning even if most students are enrolled for in-person instruction or offered hybrid plans that have all students studying remotely part of the time. Incorporating those types of strategies into their district’s plans for school ““creates the nimbleness” for districts to respond if they do have to quickly shut down a school, he said.

Tracking of COVID-19 cases

New Hampshire this week launched a state dashboard listing COVID-19 cases in schools.

Pennsylvania has yet to roll-out anything similar at the state level.

The NEA’s database tracking COVID-19 cases was initially launched by a teacher in Kansas who was concerned because there wasn’t any readily-accessible government data on coronavirus cases in schools. The national teachers’ union took over the effort, and now has a link to the data on its website as well as a portal for teachers to add reports of coronavirus cases in their schools.

Thus far, most of the data on COVID-19 cases has come from media reports, the bulk of them from local newspaper coverage.

Schools are not required to notify the Department of Health if there are coronavirus cases in their buildings because the Health Department are notified by the labs whenever anyone tests positive for COVID-19, Levis said.

Contact tracers and case investigators from the Health Department would determine if a student or adult has a connection to a school, he said.

“Once a case has been identified, the school is notified, and they are doing a great job of keeping parents informed,” Levis said.

The Health Department and the Department of Education are still investigating “the best ways to communicate increases in school-aged children,” said Eric Levis, a Department of Education spokesman.

Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said that the state teachers union has been consistently calling for schools to strictly follow the health and safety guidance on social-distancing and cleaning and sanitizing in schools.

“These guidelines were put out by health experts and school officials are not health experts,” he said.

Lilienthal said he’s not aware of any evidence that schools have been taking shortcuts that have contributed to outbreaks.

“I can tell you educators are going to be paying attention” in case that changes, he said.

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