Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a news conference in October. (Flickr/Office of Gov. Tom Wolf) Dr. Rachel Levine
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a news conference in October. (Flickr/Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

The state is not mandating the change, but says it can happen if districts follow guidelines and have the resources needed.

Pennsylvania’s top educator and public health official said they want elementary school students to return to the classroom when local conditions allow it. 

Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine explained the changes to the state’s recommendations Thursday morning.

The state had been recommending that districts in counties with substantial spread of the virus—a category that all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have been in for months—operate with remote learning.

They’re changing that now, saying that districts that have the capabilities locally to maintain the state’s guidelines can have in-person classes for elementary school students.

The department of health’s recommendations are for hybrid learning, not full in-classroom learning every day.

Ortega also said that students in some targeted communities, like English-language learners or special education students, could be in the classroom no matter their grade.

He repeatedly said the decision to go in-classroom is not mandatory, but “up to school leaders to make a decision.”

Levine and Ortega said the decision is based on science, citing studies and research they say backed up the change.

Levine admitted that it’s impossible to eliminate risk completely of contracting the coronavirus, but research shows younger students are at a lower risk. 

“The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge,” Levine said in a statement.

Levine said mitigation measures must be followed. Social distancing must be maintained, masking should be universal, and hand-washing should be regularly done.

Ortega said the change should occur in line with when districts start the second semester or third quarter of their school year. That’s usually around Jan. 25.

The decision came the same day that the state announced 9,698 new positive cases. So far, Pennsylvania has had 693,087 coronavirus cases in the state and at least 17,179 have died from coronavirus-related issues.