In the last two (2) weeks, the Pennsylvania Departments of Education (PDE) and Health (DOH) have issued numerous pieces of additional guidance and/or orders impacting the functioning of public school districts in the closing months of this school year.
PDE UPDATES ON IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION
On March 30, PDE issued:
- Updates to Recommendations for Pre-K to 12 Schools Following Identification of a Case(s) of COVID-19, which has aligned with many districts’ decision to move forward with additional days of in-person instruction for students at the middle and high school levels. The updated chart lessons the required days for building closure following documented COVID-19 cases.
- Updates to FAQs on Recommendations for Pre-K to 12 Schools Following Identification of a Case(s) of COVID-19, which reaffirms that school districts served only by the Commonwealth’s Department of Health, and not a local DOH, may close for a period shorter than is specified in the “closure matrix.”
- Updates to Social/Physical Distancing Measures section of Public Health Guidance for School Communities, which somewhat aligns with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance that reduces the 6 foot social distancing protocol in schools to 3 foot, in particular circumstances. Read the updated Public Health Guidance carefully, as the 3 and 6 feet distancing requirements change depending on various factors, including:
- whether a public school district is in a county of moderate/low v. substantial transmission;
- whether the building is elementary or secondary (middle/high);
- whether students are present in instructional v. other “non-instructional” space; and
- whether the students are engaged in mask breaks, eating without masks, and activities with increased exhalation (singing, shouting, band, sports, and/or exercise).
The revised Public Health Guidance continues to inconsistently label some social distancing measurements with conditional language suggesting that the social distancing need only be completed “to the greatest extent possible” or “should” be adhered to. Regardless of how your school district applies the social distancing measurements in your schools, the requirements of contact tracing, and close contact calculations for quarantine remain the same: individuals within 6 feet of a person diagnosed with COVID-19 for 15 consecutive minutes must be quarantined and referred for testing.
The PDE updated guidance does NOT require updates to a school district’s Health and Safety Plans or Attestation Form.
FIRST AMENDMENT TO MASK ORDER
On March 26, 2021, the DOH issued its First Amendment to the Amended Face-Covering Order from November 2020, adding the following language to Section 3: Exceptions to Covering Requirement:
Section 3 is amended by adding the following language to that section: G. In non-healthcare settings when CDC’s Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People (“Public Health Recommendations”) or its successor allow for no face coverings and if acting in accordance with the Public Health Recommendations.
A close read of the CDC’s Interim Public Heath Recommendations For Fully Vaccinated People, makes clear that public school districts are not included in the settings in which fully vaccinated people may interact without their masks indoors, as the CDC recommendations apply only in the strictly private context and not in public spaces. There has been no change to the mandate for face-coverings for everyone entering the public school setting.
Fully Vaccinated Individuals
There IS good news for fully vaccinated individuals attending or working in public schools. DOH’s Heath Alerts from March 16 and 24, 2021, eliminate the need for quarantine of fully vaccinated individuals who remain asymptomatic.
The March 16 alert indicates, in Recommendations for Asymptomatic Fully Vaccinated Individuals, that:
Asymptomatic fully vaccinated people who are not residents or inpatients in healthcare settings do not need to quarantine after exposure to a person with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 provided they meet the following criteria:
• They are fully vaccinated (i.e., ≥2 weeks following receipt of the second dose in a 2-dose series, or ≥2 weeks following receipt of one dose of a single-dose vaccine);
• They have remained asymptomatic since the current COVID-19 exposure.
The date of vaccination is day 0 when determining if an individual is fully vaccinated (i.e., > 2 weeks post vaccine dose). Persons who do not meet all of the above criteria should continue to follow above guidance for individuals who are not vaccinated after exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. Regardless of vaccination status, any person with new or unexplained symptoms of COVID-19 still needs to isolate and be evaluated for COVID-19 testing.
The March 24 alert indicates that:
People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not have to quarantine or get tested again as long as they do not develop new symptoms (refer to PA-HAN-559 – above). In all cases, individuals should self-monitor for symptoms following a known exposure, regardless of antibody, past infection, or vaccination status. Any person with new or unexplained symptoms of COVID19 still needs to isolate and be evaluated for COVID-19 testing.
In order to eliminate the quarantine requirement for an exposed individual with close contact in a public school, the employee or student (16 and up), should be requested to present their vaccination card demonstrating their fully vaccinated status. The card should be reviewed to determine that the individual is the appropriate number of weeks past their last vaccination. Uniformly requesting individuals to present evidence of full vaccination does not violate any privacy or discrimination requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Individuals who do not present evidence of full vaccination, or who are symptomatic, must still follow quarantine requirements. In the weeks that follow, greater numbers of students aged 16 and up will be eligible for vaccination and are being vaccinated, so school districts should publicize the need for vaccination cards to be presented to avoid quarantine.
GATHERING LIMITS EXPANDED
Finally, there are additional Updates to Limitations on Gatherings in Indoor and Outdoor Locations. On April 1, 2021, Governor Wolf updated his mitigation and enforcement Order to expand the limitations on indoor and outdoor events. Effective April 4, 2021, indoor events and gatherings are limited to 25% of maximum occupancy (up from 15%) and outdoor events and gatherings are limited to 50% of maximum occupancy (up from 20%). Of course, these limitations do not apply to the instructional settings or to meals in the cafeteria. These limitations do, however, apply to events and gatherings hosted or sponsored by school districts, including School Board meetings. With increased capacity, school districts should still maintain publicized virtual attendance options for the public along with any limited capacity in-person seating, in order to ensure full public participation in accordance with the Sunshine law.