After watching Penn Manor’s school board meeting from her Los Angeles apartment Monday night, Chelsea Shover was concerned, to say the least.
Shover, 31, is an epidemiologist and post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University, though she took a temporary leave to supervise other epidemiologists studying COVID-19 in Los Angeles County.
She watched as Penn Manor, her alma mater, approved a hybrid reopening plan that calls for most students to attend school twice a week, with the remainder of the week online, with health protocols, such as mask-wearing, routine cleaning and social distancing, in place.
But, for Shover, one key effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools was missing: Testing.
“This will happen. If you bring people back, you will have cases and outbreaks, and having a system to deal with that ahead of time is really important,” Shover told LNP | LancasterOnline Wednesday.
That means conducting routine testing and having a comprehensive process in place so schools know what to do when a student or employee tests positive.
Lancaster County schools, though, don’t plan to test students, according to school officials. And what happens after a case is confirmed, they say, is largely out of their hands.
Relying on state health department
“We are not medical professionals,” Hempfield superintendent Mike Bromirski said, adding the school district is relying on the state Department of Health for case-by-case direction on how broadly people should be notified if someone tests positive for COVID-19 and whether classes should shut down. “We’ll continue using that process just as we’ve always done as we’re getting ready to open up the school year,” he said.
However, the health department hasn’t been specific about what should happen if a coronavirus case is verified, except that close contacts will be notified. So schools can’t say whether families will be alerted if their student was in a classroom or bus with someone who tested positive but didn’t sit near them or how many positive cases it would take to shut down classes in one room, across a school or district-wide.
“As for what decisions will be made when a positive test occurs, the department will be working with the facilities to determine what risk and exposures there may be,” health department spokesman Nate Wardle said in an email.
Wardle said schools can develop their own plans on how to share information about a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, but “it is essential they protect the privacy of individuals.”
As for whether schools should test, Wardle said the “Wolf administration is working to develop further guidance and recommendations to assist schools and will release as soon as it is available.”
The state departments of education and health have guidance issued for everything from masks to contact tracing, but not testing.
Not enough resources
Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter said districts are working with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health as well as the state health department to collaborate on testing.
Schools simply don’t have enough resources to test, he said, adding, “It’s a question beyond us.”
Once a student or employee does test positive, it remains unclear what information school districts would share publicly. All county school districts except for Octorara Area said they are collectively working with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health to determine what the health department’s guidelines mean for them. The health system has been authorized to handle most case investigation and contact tracing here.
Leichliter said the possibility of having to figure out who was in close contact with a contagious person is why schools are implementing new precautions like assigned seating in all classes and buses, and emphasizing the importance of keeping accurate records and limiting movement. That way, he said, if someone from Lancaster General contacts the school asking who sat where on a certain day, it can go to a teacher and have a definitive answer.
“Sometimes the answer ‘I don’t know’ is a valid answer,” Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski said. “We’re working through something we’ve never worked through before.”
Octorara Area School District serves a small portion of Lancaster County but is mostly in Chester County and will be following the guidance of that county’s health department. Lancaster County doesn’t have a health department. Guidance from the Chester County Health Department said it would work with the schools but "will not notify the general community if staff, faculty or students test positive, are exposed, or become ill and have to self-isolate.”