Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, left, and Education Secretary Noe Ortega. (Source: Pa.gov)
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, left, and Education Secretary Noe Ortega. (Source: Pa.gov)

Pennsylvania officials reiterated Thursday that they're committed to policies to maintain in-person K-12 education.

Accordingly, they are continuing to encourage Covid-19 vaccination for everyone who is eligible, as well as regular testing for the virus in schools. They are working on addressing the acute shortage of school bus drivers and are looking forward to vaccination becoming available for children ages 5-11.

“Across Pennsylvania, students are excited to be back in the classroom, learning and growing and playing alongside their classmates,” Education Secretary Noe Ortega said during a virtual news conference.

Transportation Secretary Curt Myers

Deputy Transportation Secretary Kurt Myers said PennDOT is contacting about 375,000 individuals who hold commercial driver's licenses (CDL), advising them of the need for school bus drivers and how to obtain the necessary endorsements.

Beginning Oct. 18, PennDOT will offer an extra day of CDL testing for four weeks, adding Mondays to the schedule.

At a hearing last week, school officials said the Department of Health had imposed its mask mandate without consulting them, leading to unintended consequences that could have been avoided with better communication.

Asked about that, Acting Secretary Alison Beam said the department is doing its best to "evolve our process" and be more responsive.

She said districts need to stand their ground on the mask mandate, and that the department will keep working with them to ensure they do.

The Health Department's order requires universal masking, and while there are limited exemptions for genuine medical issues and the like, Beam said, "A parent's frustration with the order is not one of them."

Beam encouraged more schools to take advantage of the free Concentric Covid-19 testing program, which offers weekly pooled testing. There are 396 public and private schools taking part so far: Beam said she hopes greater awareness will boost participation.

She also recommended that schools begin arranging with vaccine providers to schedule vaccination clinics in November, in anticipation of the Pfizer vaccine being approved for ages 5-11.

"It’s very encouraging that more than half-a-million school-aged kids are already vaccinated," Beam said. "We know that vaccinations are one of the best ways to prevent illness due to COVID-19 and help keep students learning in-person."

Tim Stuhldreher