Schools should implement universal mask requirements along with other mitigation strategies to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 and limit disruptions to in-person learning this school year, according to new recommendations from Lancaster County’s largest health system.

Lancaster General Health Penn Medicine’s recommendations, shared with school officials last week, come mere days prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year and add another wrinkle to reopening decisions across the county.

Previously, schools have had only federal guidance on which to base their reopening decisions, as the state has largely steered clear of the issue. Now, schools have clear local guidance to consider in the waning days of summer.

It’s doesn’t seem likely, however, that the new recommendations, which align with those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, will make an immediate difference.

“I don’t know that many are going to change,” Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 Executive Director Brian Barnhart, who regularly meets with superintendents from Lancaster and Lebanon counties, said of local schools’ reopening plans.

The majority of Lancaster County school boards have approved their health and safety plans, which outline what prevention measures — from social distancing to cleaning and disinfecting — school districts will follow. The plans are required by the state in order to receive federal pandemic relief funding and are flexible enough so they can change throughout the school year.

Out of 17 Lancaster County school districts, one — School District of Lancaster — has announced a universal mask requirement like what local and federal health officials advise. The Manheim Township school board is expected to vote on its plan Thursday, choosing between a mask-optional plan and one that requires masks.

Barnhart suggested that some school leaders are wary of making such a decision because any action a school board takes could cause an outcry. Nevertheless, he said, “Once schools start, if kids start getting sick, there’s going to be adjustments.”

The Lancaster General Health Penn Medicine recommendations include universal mask-wearing indoors, regardless of vaccination status; at least 3 feet of social distancing; proper hand and bathroom hygiene; encouragement for eligible students and employees to get vaccinated; symptom monitoring; robust isolation and quarantine protocols; and a public review of COVID-19 policies by a designated task force every two weeks.

Goal is in-person learning

“Based on what we’re currently seeing in Lancaster County … it is in the best interest for our kids for schools to start the school year universally masking and then to reevaluate every two weeks,” said Dr. Pia Fenimore, vice chair of pediatrics for Lancaster General Health Penn Medicine, who co-wrote the recommendations.

If communities aren’t experiencing 100 positive cases per 100,000 people, which Lancaster County currently is, schools can consider alleviating strict safety protocols, Fenimore said. However, she warned that the virus might not go away anytime soon.

“This roller coaster of new variants is going to continue for a while,” she said.

Fenimore wrote the recommendations with Dr. Jeffrey Martin, chair of the department of family and community medicine at the health system. Martin said the goal of publishing them is to keep in-person learning intact.

“It seems reasonable to introduce mitigation and infection control measures that we know worked during last school year to keep children — and their families, by extension — safe and free of COVID,” Martin said, adding that now is not the time to be relaxing health and safety measures.

Martin has been in regular contact with Lancaster County school district leaders since the beginning of last school year. On Wednesday, he introduced the new recommendations to superintendents as well as the intermediate unit. Copies of the recommendations were distributed by the intermediate unit a couple days later.

Both Martin and Fenimore said vaccination is key to ending the pandemic, and that vaccinating children under 12 years old when they become eligible will be a significant step.

Until then, schools will have to keep making tough decisions, as the Pennsylvania departments of Health and Education have not issued any mandates as they did last school year. Instead, they have urged school districts to follow CDC guidance.

On Thursday, the Manheim Township’s school board will decide whether to require masks. School board President Nikki Rivera on Monday didn’t say which way she’d vote, but she said the board takes the administration’s recommendations “to heart.” The administration is recommending a mask-optional plan.

“I think it’s unfortunate that this is left to school boards to decide as far as mandates go,” Rivera said.

Whatever route the board takes, Rivera said she and her family will continue to wear masks for protection.

“I didn’t need a mandate to tell me to wear a mask,” she said.

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