Pennsylvania schools should consider a return to in-person instruction for elementary-age students, state health and education officials said Thursday, a change from previous state guidance that recommended online-only education in areas where the coronavirus is raging.

Since the beginning of the academic year, state officials have urged virtual instruction in counties with a “substantial” level of community transmission — a number that rose rapidly as the virus surged this fall and winter. For the past month, all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties have been deemed to have a substantial level of viral spread.

State officials now want schools to consider bringing elementary students back to the classroom, saying that’s where they belong. The change in guidance takes effect for the third marking period, which begins in late January.

“We know that educators and families recognize that students benefit from being physically in their classroom. Research has taught us that this is especially true for our youngest learners,” Noe Ortega, acting secretary of the state Department of Education, said at an online news conference Thursday.

In Pennsylvania, the decision on whether to offer remote instruction, in-person instruction or a combination of both rests with school districts, and that won’t change, he said.

Schools, to this point, have not been seen as significant sources of contagion, and many Pennsylvania districts have gone their own way in spite of the earlier state guidance to shut down, offering classroom instruction five days a week or using a hybrid model in which students go to school part-time and learn from home part-time.

Other districts — including Philadelphia, the state’s largest — are fully remote.

The state’s largest teachers union panned the new guidance as premature, especially with the virus continuing to rage, and said the state needs stronger mechanisms to ensure that every district is complying with health and safety guidance.

“As COVID-19 cases increase to near-record levels in Pennsylvania and as a more contagious strain of the virus has been identified here, this is no time to encourage schools to bring more students and staff in contact with one another in areas with high rates of community spread,” said Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

State gets first case of new COVID-19 strain 

State health officials said the new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus had been detected in Pennsylvania for the first time.

Someone in Dauphin County tested positive for the variant “after known international exposure,” the Department of Health said in a news release. The patient had mild symptoms and has since completed isolation at home, health officials said.

The new variant first emerged in Britain, sweeping across that country and prompting a national lockdown, and has since been detected in several states.

Hospital readiness

Strain on hospitals continued to decline this week, as numbers of hospitalized patients, intensive care unit occupancy and ventilator use continued to inch downward, according to figures provided by the state.

Hospitals in Pennsylvania had admitted 5,491 COVID-19 Thursday, with 1,113 in intensive care and 625 on ventilators. Total ventilator use is 32% (1,904 of 5,950). 

Over the last 14 days, the state has had an average of 5,737.4 patients admitted in hospitals and 692.8 patients on ventilators.

Intensive care unit occupancy has been approximately 86% in the last two weeks, with a 14-day rolling average of 646.1 ICU beds available on a daily basis. ICU bed availability was at its lowest level on Christmas Eve, when it was 571.

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