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January 19, 2022

New COVID-19 guidelines for Philly schools include shorter isolation periods, fewer in-person closures

Health officials say coronavirus cases will no longer be used to determine whether schools shift to virtual learning

Education Schools
COVID Schools Guidelines Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia Department of Health has updated its COVID-19 guidelines for the city's public schools. Pauses to in-person learning are no longer recommended as a response to high numbers of cases.

Philadelphia's public schools should continue in-person learning unless staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 require temporary pauses, according to the latest guidelines.

But due to widespread community transmission, the Department of Public Health is no longer advising schools to halt in-person learning in response to high coronavirus case numbers, Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said during a Wednesday morning press conference.

However, schools may make their own decisions to close based on large numbers of students or staff being out due to COVID-19, Bettigole said. The department changed its guidance because most COVID-19 transmission has been found to be relatively rare within schools. 

There are currently 15 schools that are operating virtually through at least Friday, according to the School District of Philadelphia's website.

Bettigole also outlined additional school guidance that initially was disclosed Tuesday in a letter to educators.

Single cloth masks are no longer considered adequate. Instead, the health department recommends students and staff use medical-grade masks like the N95, KN95 or KF94.

Additionally, 10% of a school's unvaccinated population should be tested weekly and contact tracing efforts be reserved to "high risk exposures," like at lunchtime, Bettigole said.

Schools can switch to using five-day quarantine and isolation periods followed by five days of strict masking if they meet additional mitigation layers and receive approval from the health department. 

This will bring city schools in line with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's latest guidance, Bettigole said.

The mitigation layers include proper ventilation, contract tracing for high risk exposures, strict masking and screening tests. They also must have a space where students and staff who tested positive or were exposed to COVID can eat separately from their peers on days 6-10 of their isolation and quarantine periods. 

Bettigole said that most schools will not be able to meet this guidance and will have to maintain the current 10-day isolation and quarantine periods. 

Also, staff who can provide two negative rapid tests, on the fifth and sixth days after they first tested positive can return to work.