Chesco Health Dept. Relaxes Some School Guidance

WEST CHESTER, PA — School boards are meeting even before the Oct. 9 mark they set to re-evaluate virtual instruction, and some have already chosen to bring students into classrooms after the Chester County Health Department issued guidance updates on Sept. 14.

The Chester County Health Department offered guidance to public and private schools in Chester and Delaware counties, advising in August that schools begin virtually and remain in virtual instruction mode until at least Oct. 9. School boards complied everywhere, heeding the expert directives.

But that changed with the issuance of guidance updates Sept. 14. Radnor Township School District voted last night to shift to a hybrid model starting Sept. 29. Great Valley District schools started up regular sports practices this week. Downingtown Area school district informed parents last week it would not make changes until Oct. 9, and the Phoenixville Area School Board said the same. West Chester Area and Tredyffrin-Easttown district boards meet next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, parents have been walking with signs demanding in-class instruction in West Chester and districts overall have received far more comments to that effect than they have from a minority of parents who wish to continue to have their children learning virtually.

Jeanne Casner, Director of the Chester County Health Department, explained the Sept. 14 updates to school guidance that has activated some districts to approve changes to both sports and instructional functioning, even before Oct. 9.

Casner explained the “Old Guidance” called for:

  • Transitioning to a more in-person instructional model can only be considered when thresholds are met for three (3) consecutive weeks and at least a 0.5 percent cumulative decrease in positivity over the three weeks is reached.
  • Transitioning to a more virtual instructional model can only be done when thresholds are met for two (2) consecutive weeks. It is recommended that reviews of thresholds occur at regular intervals to minimize frequent transitions between instructional models.

“Current Guidance” as updated Sept. 14 calls for:

  • Transitioning to a more in-person instructional model can be considered when thresholds for incidence rates and positivity are met for three (3) consecutive weeks per the table below.
  • Transitioning to a more virtual instructional model can be considered when thresholds for incidence rates and positivity are met for two (2) consecutive weeks per the table below.

Alterations to the guidance are subtle, but the “old guidance” uses stronger language, saying in the second point, “transition … can only be done when.”

In the “current guidance” the wording is changed to: “transition … can be considered when.”

This change of wording gives districts slightly more leeway in moving out of virtual learning, allowing them make changes if one threshold is met, and the other is met with numbers close enough to put the district in a model box that includes one of two options, as seen below.

A screen photo of a Chester County Health Department page more easily shows the chart of standards for schools to use in making decisions about reopening. The AND/OR column indicates whether both indicators must be met, (AND) or whether one or the other must be met, in which case districts are advised to use the “higher transmission level,” and to consider the instructional model that goes with it.

Metrics are released every week representing the prior seven-day period, and these numbers will be used by school boards, in communication with the health department, in deciding whether to return to classrooms in some form. After schools return to hybrid or full in-person instruction, the number will be watched, and they could at any time indicate the need to return to virtual school.

Countywide data is available at a public data dashboard. The Pennsylvania Health Department’s data by county can be accessed on its COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard.

School sports has had its own guidance game going on.

Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Health Department on Aug. 6 made an unpopular call for no sports until January 2021. A month later Wolf updated guidelines to allow for some events with spectators.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) approved the start date of the 2020 Fall Sports Season as Aug. 24, 2020 for those schools choosing to do so.

The Chester County Health Department said, “The decision to resume sports-related activities, including conditioning, practice and games, is and has always been, at the sole discretion of the school entity’s governing body.”

On Sept. 8, 2020, the PIAA issued updated its Return to Competition: Individual Sport Considerations guidance, and the county health department encouraged districts who resume sports to develop and adopt an Athletics Health and Safety Plan per Pennsylvania Health Department and PIAA guidance.

The full Chester County Health Department Public and Private School Guidance document can be read here.

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