PolicyLab's latest  Covid-19 projection for Lancaster County, released Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, shows a steep rise in cases through November into December. (Source: PolicyLab | Children's Hospital of Philadelphia)
PolicyLab's latest Covid-19 projection for Lancaster County, released Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, shows a steep rise in cases through November into December. (Source: PolicyLab | Children's Hospital of Philadelphia)

Health experts at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are calling on school districts in Lancaster County and other areas hard-hit by the fall coronavirus resurgence to shift to fully remote learning beginning Monday.

In-person should remain suspended until seven to 10 days after Thanksgiving, researchers with the hospital's PolicyLab said Wednesday in the team's latest Covid-19 update.

In an email, a PolicyLab spokesperson confirmed the recommendation applies to Lancaster County.

"This move to virtual learning should be prioritized for students in middle and high school," PolicyLab said. "While we have seen increasing infection rates among child care and elementary-aged youth, their relative contribution to community burden of infection remains small."

Dr. Rachel Levine

PolicyLab's advice accords with guidance developed this summer by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. On Thursday, however, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the matter remains up to individual districts.

While districts in areas with substantial community transmission are urged to "consider" remote education, "these are recommendations, not orders," the secretary said during a media call.

Pennsylvania's guidelines recommend remote learning when Covid-19 transmission in a region is "substantial" β€” that is, above a weekly rate of 100 new cases per 100,000 residents. Lancaster County's rate last week was 142.2; while its test positivity rate is 6.5%, above the 5% threshold considered acceptable. It is one of 38 Pennsylvania counties with substantial transmission.

While deaths from the virus remain low locally compared with the spring, they are ticking upward. As of Thursday, the county coroner had reported 13 Covid-19 deaths in November, compared with 22 in October and 13 in September.

PSEA calls for remote learning

To date, while Lancaster County school districts have closed individual buildings and campuses in response to identified Covid-19 cases, and are closely monitoring public health data, none has signaled it is planning a wholesale shift from in-person or hybrid instruction back to fully remote.

The county's largest district, the School District of Lancaster, began the year fully remote. It remains so for grades 6-12; but grades 1-5 have shifted to attending school two days a week. (Fulton Elementary School temporarily closed this week due to a positive Covid-19 test.)

Rich Askey

In a statement Wednesday, Rick Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers union called on districts to follow state guidance "to the letter" and temporarily "pause" in-person instruction if they are in areas with substantial coronavirus transmission.

β€œIt is absolutely unacceptable for any school district to disregard the advice of medical professionals and scientists during a pandemic and put the safety of students, staff, and their families at risk,” Askey said.

PolicyLab acknowledged that its recommendation for remote instruction represents a significant shift. Previously, it had said community spread should not necessarily lead schools to close their doors.

However, childhood infection rates are now often exceeding adult infection rates, and "it is likely that in the coming weeks, transmission in schools and around school-related activities will contribute to increasing community spread during the height of this crisis," the organization said.

PolicyLab has been tracking Covid-19 at the county level nationwide, and projecting near-term trends using a model that incorporates weather and social distancing.

Tim Stuhldreher