HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) –– Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is trying a two-pronged approach to keep K-12 school environments safe from a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
The departments of health and education are now encouraging as many school districts as possible to host vaccination clinics, which health experts say can help drive up the vaccination rate in communities where that number remains low.
Public and private schools outside Philadelphia can also now opt in to have students tested regularly for free — so long as their parents give permission. The state is using $87 million dollars in federal pandemic relief money to pay a private contractor to provide the tests.
“It’s clear that everyone wants to keep kids in the classroom and keep extra curricular activities going. That’s why we’re encouraging all K through 12 schools to take advantage of this unique opportunity,” Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said at a Monday news conference.
Schools across the state are in a tough spot as they prepare to start a year of in-person learning.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as education experts at places like the National Education Association, have for months stressed that students should be in the classroom as much as possible so educators can help them combat pandemic-related learning loss. Though Pennsylvania is not one of them, several states are requiring in-person instruction this school year.
But in the last few months, a rise in new COVID cases tied to the highly-contagious delta variant has complicated plans for schools to return to learning in a traditional environment. Pennsylvania has a six percent statewide positivity rate, and as of Monday was recording 2,000 new cases per day on average, up from under 180 per day at the end of June.
That’s why state leaders are hoping schools will help drive up vaccination numbers among those who can get a shot, and test students who can’t get one as often as possible.
“We know students and teachers are really looking forward to returning to their classrooms. So let’s do everything we can to make sure they’re safe while they’re teaching, learning and growing together,” Education Secretary Noe Ortega said.
Schools that opt in to the new testing program are able to have students perform a light swab of their nostrils on their own while in the classroom, a process the company administering them touts as “more efficient.” Students who have difficulty doing that on their own will receive help, the company said.
Results are then available within one to two days, and how schools respond to any positive test depends on the procedures they’ve outlined in their individual Health and Safety plan. Any school that’s getting federal American Rescue Plan money is supposed to put one together that specifically addresses COVID-19.
Beam acknowledged not every school district in the state will sign up to host a vaccine clinic or allow free testing. She called on parents and other organizers to steer school boards and leaders in that direction.
“Parents are going to be some of the strongest advocates for putting this testing in place,” Beam said. “We’d like them to speak with their school leadership and really seize this opportunity.”
Separately, the CDC has repeatedly said anyone who enters a school environment this fall should be wearing a mask. Despite that, Pennsylvania’s Health Department said it’s letting districts decide whether to require them. Beam said Monday there is “no discussion” happening on whether to reinstate a statewide masking order for schools.
Since voters in the May primary approved a constitutional amendment effort that limited a governor’s emergency authority, the Wolf administration has all but avoided directly ordering places like schools to mask up or socially distance, as it had in the past.
“We must continue to work together to maintain healthy and safe conditions for our students, our teachers and our school staff now and into the future as required,” Ortega said.