January 09, 2022
The question of how and when to resume full-time, in-person schooling has been a controversial one since the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. After two years of confusion and nearly constant change, the omicron variant's ongoing surge has once again sent Philadelphia schools virtual.
As the School District of Philadelphia continues to monitor staffing shortages and threat of transmission among students and school personnel, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab updated their COVID-19 guidance to reflect their understanding of omicron as a "milder" infection compared to other variants of COVID-19.
Released on Wednesday, the statement explains that their method of determining these changes comes from expansions of those eligible for vaccination. Currently, all people aged 5 and above are eligible for at least an initial vaccination, and booster shots are available for people aged 12 and older.
"While it is too soon to conclude that COVID-19 has become an endemic seasonal virus like influenza, the declining virulence shows signs that we are rapidly shifting in that direction, particularly for vaccinated individuals," said officials with CHOP's PolicyLab. "Now, with limited access to testing at community sites and many schools overwhelmed with contact tracing and required testing solutions that are no longer feasible or sustainable, the time has come to pivot towards solutions that prioritize normalization of in-school education across all communities alongside practical safety measures."
CHOP's PolicyLab continues to encourage masking requirements for all schools regardless of vaccination status, even as Pennsylvania's school masking policy was shot down by the state's Supreme Court in December. They note that those who are symptomatic should stay home, and those with mild symptoms should seek testing, but that weekly testing requirements of asymptomatic people can be discontinued.
For those who want to be tested regularly — or those whose loved ones are immunocompromised or work in high-risk professions — CHOP says that optional testing should remain available while supplies last.
This guidance comes as the Philadelphia region grapples with how to access COVID-19 testing, as supplies of tests have dwindled as omicron continues to surge.
CHOP's PolicyLab also notes that COVID-exposed, asymptomatic staff and students should be allowed to continue attending school in-person as part of a "7-day modified quarantine," otherwise known as a "mask-to-stay" policy. If implemented, staff and students who are COVID-exposed but return to in-person learning would have to wear a mask for the entire 7-day period.
New Jersey recently implemented a "test to stay" policy to encourage the continuation of in-person learning for unvaccinated students who come into contact with a COVID-exposed student.
The updated guidance comes just days before the Associated Press reported an uptick in hospitalizations in children — both for children under 5 who are currently ineligible for vaccination, as well as an uptick in new hospitalizations for children aged 18 and younger across the United States.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry T. Jordan responded to the updated guidance with a statement released from the teacher's union, which has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases among teachers organized by the union.
Jordan stresses that the PFT supports a return to in-person learning, even as teacher shortages due to COVID-19 infection has resulted in 88 Philly public schools virtual for the upcoming week.
"We are encouraged that CHOP continues to recommend universal masking, regardless of vaccination status," said Jordan. "But the reality is these resources are not being provided to schools. Roughly 35% of schools have reported a lack of mask supplies, and those that have masks are certainly not of the KF94, KN95, or N95 variety... As such, we are even more concerned by CHOP's 'mask-to-stay' guidance."
Jordan goes on to say that CHOP's recommendation to end systematic COVID-19 testing in schools seems "ill-advised" as the omicron variant continues to surge, and Philadelphia reaches a 37.5% positivity rate over the last two weeks.
Still, PolicyLab believes that Philadelphia and the surrounding region is reaching the peak of the omicron surge, and that the risk associated with students not being in school for extended periods of time due to closures is more concerning than the threat of COVID-19 itself at this stage of the pandemic.
The School District is providing staffing updates to parents and community members regularly as 46 public schools continue virtual learning this upcoming week. Superintendent Hite will release another update with any additional schools moving virtual on Sunday afternoon, as the District provides an additional set of meal sites for students attending classes from home for the following week.
In addition to the 12 meal sites already assigned by the District, officials added an additional 12, which are available here. If a school goes virtual, students from that school will be eligible to receive these grab-and-go meal kits the following day. The meal kits include five breakfast and five lunch meals for pick-up.
Each meal site will be open from 9 a.m. until 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. until 2 p.m. each day, and students or representatives must bring a student's ID card with them in order to receive a meal kit.
Both CHOP and the city of Philadelphia recommends the COVID-19 vaccine for any person aged 5 and above, with booster shots available for those aged 16 and older. Vaccine appointments can be made through the city's portal, or can be found through the national dashboard.