On July 9th, the CDC issued updated guidance with a preference for return to in-person instruction for K-12 schools. The key takeaway from this guidance is that school districts should to the greatest extent practicable, implement prevention and mitigation policies in line with the most up-to-date guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities. It is important to understand this information shared by the CDC is just guidance and does not have the force of law, especially since the Commonwealth rescinded its Universal Mask order effective June 28, 2021.
As of today, PDE has not issued separate guidance (expected within the week) apart from emphasizing that decisions on mitigation strategies are a Local Education Agency’s (LEA) decision. LEAs should be guided by community transmission levels as to what mitigation strategies will be implemented in their respective schools. Masks are still recommended as the best mitigation strategy for individuals who are not vaccinated. Please note that under a Federal order issued in January 2021, the CDC requires face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, when on public transportation – this includes on school buses operated by public and private school systems.
All LEAs seeking the third disbursement of grant funding through the ARP ESSER are required to submit Health & Safety Plans by July 30, 2021. Pursuant to the grant guidelines, LEAs are required to review the plans every 6 months and update/revise where necessary and place the revised plans on the LEA’s website. Revised plans do not need to be shared with PDE.
Health and Safety Plans required LEAs to include the following components:
- How the LEA will, to the greatest extent practicable, support prevention and mitigation policies in line with the most up-to-date guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the reopening and operation of school facilities to continuously and safely open and operate schools for in-person learning;
- How the LEA will ensure continuity of services, including but not limited to services to address the students’ academic needs, and students’ and staff members’ social, emotional, mental health, and other needs, which may include student health and food services;
- How the LEA will maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff and the extent to which it has adopted policies, and a description of any such policy on each of the following safety recommendations established by the CDC:
- Universal and correct wearing of masks;
- Modifying facilities to allow for physical distancing (e.g., use of cohorts/podding);
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette;
- Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, including improving ventilation;
- Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the State and local health departments;
- Diagnostic and screening testing;
- Efforts to provide vaccinations to school communities;
- Appropriate accommodations for children with disabilities with respect to health and safety policies; and
- Coordination with state and local health officials.
The CDC recommends if school administrators are considering whether and how to remove prevention strategies, they should remove one prevention strategy at a time and students, teachers, and staff should be closely monitored for any outbreaks or increases in COVID-19 cases.