Lancaster County schools aren’t recommended to offer full-time, in-person instruction under the newest reopening guidance issued Monday by the state departments of education and health.
The guidance, which recommends different instructional models depending on the health risks in each county, says school districts only in counties in which transmission rates are considered “low,” with less than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past week and a COVID-19 test positivity rate under 5%, should consider a return to full-time, in-person instruction.
Last week Lancaster County recorded 52.8 new cases per 100,000 residents and a 5.3% positivity rate, according to data from the state Health Department. That puts the county's transmission rate in the “moderate” category, in which schools should reopen under a blended learning model or fully remote.
Lancaster County hasn't been below the state's threshold for new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days since late March, in the earliest days of the pandemic here.
Lancaster is one of 41 Pennsylvania counties in the "moderate" category. Twenty-five counties have "low" transmission rates. Only Union County is considered having "substantial" transmission rates.
Schools in counties in the “substantial" category, with incident rates per 100,000 residents at or above 100 or test positivity rates at or above 10%, should reopen fully remote.
The recommendations come weeks before the first day of school. School officials are working to put the final touches on their state-mandated health and safety plans, with many returning to the drawing board and shifting away from models heavily devoted to in-person instruction.
More than half of Lancaster County school districts plan to offer full-time, in-person instruction in the fall. Only one – School District of Lancaster – has announced a fully remote reopening. Others, such as Cocalico, Lampeter-Strasburg, Octorara Area, Penn Manor and Solanco, have opted for blended models, or a mixture of in-person and remote learning.
The guidance gives school officials a "significant piece of information to consider," Eastern Lancaster County School District Superintendent Bob Hollister said in an email.
"As a District we have kept the door open to multiple learning plans should a pivot be necessitated by an 'on the ground' change in circumstance or a regulation/recommendation change from authorities," he said. "This obviously constitutes the latter."
Elanco's current reopening plan includes full-time, in-person instruction.
Other local school officials contacted Monday afternoon said they needed more time to process the guidelines before commenting.
State Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a call with reporters Monday afternoon that the guidance is meant to be "another tool in the toolbox" for superintendents and school boards to use when preparing to reopen schools.
"There really are no good choices, so we have to choose the least bad choice," Levine said. "We're trying to make a data-driven recommendation."
The guidance isn’t a mandate like last month's order requiring universal face coverings, she said.
While school officials may opt to go against the recommendations, Levine said schools must remain flexible in the case of a serious outbreak.
State Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, also on the call, said schools shouldn't constantly bounce around from one instructional model to another as transmission rates fluctuate in each county. Rather, they should track the data and wait perhaps as long as a marking period before shifting to a model that includes more in-person instruction.
Rick Askey, president of Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, expressed support for the latest guidelines.
"The new reopening measures are guidance for our schools, and I strongly encourage all schools in Pennsylvania to follow them," he said in a statement. "Doing so will ensure that Pennsylvania's students, staff, and families stay safe, that we slow the spread of the virus, and that we know schools will be safe places to learn and work when the virus is under control."
This story will be updated.