HARRISBURG -- The Department of Education is encouraging local school districts to consider in-person classes for elementary students, while still suggesting that older students remain at home to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

In addition, schools may consider allowing “targeted” groups,  including special education students to return to school for in-person instruction. The new guidance is aimed at the beginning of schools' second semester of classes which begin later this month.

The state’s largest teachers union has “serious concerns” about the plan, said Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

“There is nothing Pennsylvania educators want more than to be back in the classroom with their students. But rushing students back at the height of a pandemic with no clear plan to enforce health and safety guidelines will set back our efforts to achieve that goal,” he said.

Askey said that the state needs to be more aggressive about ensuring that local schools are following state COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.

Ortega said that local officials must plan to ensure that schools are safe if they are going to allow in-person instruction to resume.

“We’re not mandating or requiring everyone to come back for in-person instruction,” Ortega said. “We’re creating a pathway for them to do so. One of the things they have to factor in is that they’ve accounted for the health and safety of all the folks involved,” he said.

Health and education officials said the changed guidance is based on research showing that the benefits of being in school outweigh the risks for younger students.

“The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “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,” Levine said.

Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said that the state's new guidance doesn't represent much of a change.

"What the research shows is that at the elementary level, it's really important that they are in school five days a week," he said. "We knew that," DiRocco said.

The message may be getting stronger because there is increasing evidence suggesting that being at home instead of school may be creating serious issues for children in terms of their social development and mental health.

"What thy are missing (by not being in school) may be more problematic than the virus," DiRocco said.

Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega acknowledged that having younger children attending school in-person while older students remain at home could be challenging for families.

He said that state officials would like to see more grade-levels in school but he declined to offer a timeline for when the state might suggest it’s appropriate for older students to return for in-person instruction.

Every county in the state has had what the state considers a substantial community spread of COVID-19 since early December. Under that guidance, the state had been recommending that schools conduct all classes online.

The guidance has been optional for school districts and many districts have been alternating between in-school classes and remote learning for months, depending on the number of COVID-19 cases they’ve had in their schools.

The Pennsylvania School Board Association is glad that the guidance isn’t mandatory, but local school officials wish that the state would provide clearer detail about what’s expected of them, said Annette Stevenson, a PSBA spokeswoman.

Had PSBA been consulted or informed of the guidance prior to release, we would have suggested that school boards and administrators be supported with more concreteness in the ideas as they consider how to execute the best decisions for their communities,” she said.

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