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Instructional Model Recommendations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

This page was updated on April 5, 2021.

These updates go into effect on Monday, April 12, 2021, for Pennsylvania's school communities.

Are the Recommendations for Pre-K to 12 Schools in Determining Instructional Models mandatory?

No. These Recommendations for Pre-K to 12 Schools in Determining Instructional Models from the Departments of Health (DOH) and Education (PDE) are intended to provide additional guidance for school entities to use when making local decisions about the second semester. The recommendations align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) K-12 School Operational Strategy

In addition to these recommendations, school leaders also should consider local factors such as the size of the school entity, classroom size, school resources, proportion of staff and students with special needs and underlying health conditions, and the ability to accommodate remote learning with equal access for all students.

To which school entities do these recommendations apply? 

These recommendations apply to all non-residential Pre-K to 12 schools. This includes public PreK-12 schools, brick and mortar and cyber charter schools, private and parochial schools, career and technical centers (CTCs), and intermediate units (IUs).

How will school entities know whether there is low, moderate, or substantial community transmission in their county?

Each week, PDE publishes a list identifying the level of community transmission (low, moderate, or substantial) in each county

What if a school entity is located in more than one county?

If a school entity is located in more than one county, DOH and PDE recommend that the school entity base decisions upon the county with the higher level of transmission. For example, if a school entity is located in two counties – one identified as having low transmission and another identified as having moderate transmission – the school entity should consider the instructional models recommended for moderate transmission counties (blended learning, in this example).

Where can I find other public health information about COVID-19 transmission in my county?

Other public health information is available for every county in Pennsylvania on the COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard. The data are updated every Friday as a 7-day rolling average.

What should a school entity do if the level of transmission in their county changes week-by-week?

A county's corresponding threshold may change week-by-week as incidence and percent positivity rates rise and fall. In order to confirm stability of county transmission, when a county's corresponding threshold changes, school entities should wait to see the results from the next 7-day reporting period before considering a change to their instructional models. To ensure the most effective transition for students, it may be appropriate for a school to wait even longer, up to a full marking period, to transition to an instructional model that increases in-person instruction. It is important to note that a significant and/or widespread outbreak may require moving to a more remote-based model more quickly. The Department of Health will provide proactive consultative assistance to school entities should such an outbreak occur.

Are schools required to incorporate these recommendations into the Health and Safety Plans approved by their governing bodies?

No. A public school entity that submitted its Health and Safety plan to PDE does not need to update its plan. However, all school entities are encouraged to review their Health and Safety plans as well as their local policies and procedures to ensure that they reflect current mitigation efforts and safety protocols.

Is there evidence to support the safety of students returning to in-person instruction?

The research on offering in-person instruction during COVID-19 continues to emerge. While it is impossible to eliminate risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting when community spread is present, recent studies have shown that when mitigation strategies, including universal masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are strictly adhered to, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction. 

While people of any age can contract COVID-19, research suggests people ages 18 and under have a lower risk of severe outcomes, including lower rates of hospitalization and death resulting from COVID-19 infection. For the latest research, see the CDC Transmission for SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools.

Can schools bring back targeted student populations for in-person instruction, regardless of what instructional model they are otherwise utilizing?

Yes. The Departments recognize that some student populations are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, schools may consider bringing targeted student populations back for in-person instruction, regardless of what instructional model they are otherwise utilizing provided other mitigation strategies such as masking and physical distancing are implemented.

Who determines which student populations can return to in-person instruction?

This is a decision for each school entity. Understanding that student needs and instructional delivery vary across communities, decisions should be made locally and in the context of aggressive COVID-19 mitigation strategies, and in a manner consistent with any applicable orders of the Governor or Secretary of Health.

What are the social/physical distancing recommendations for in-person learning?

All Pre-K to 12 schools should implement strategies that limit the number of individuals in classrooms and other learning spaces and interactions between groups of students, regardless whether individuals are vaccinated.

All schools should align distancing protocols with the recommendations for physical distancing outlined in the CDC K-12 School Operational Strategy.

In classrooms and other instructional spaces:

  • In elementary schools, students should be at least 3 feet apart, regardless of the community transmission level.

  • In middle and high schools, students should be at least 3 feet apart in areas of low and moderate community transmission. In areas of substantial community transmission, middle and high school students should be 6 feet apart to the maximum extent feasible, if cohorting is not possible. Cohorting is when groups of students are kept together with the same peers and staff throughout the school day to reduce the risk for spread throughout the school. Contact should be limited between cohorts by maintaining 6 feet of distance between cohorts where possible.

Maintain 6 feet of distance to the maximum extent feasible in all settings outside of the classroom and other instructional spaces including:

  • Between adults in the school building (teachers and staff), and between adults and students. Several studies have found that transmission between staff is more common than transmission between students and staff, and among students, in schools.

  • When masks can't be worn, such as when eating.

  • During activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band, or sports and exercise. Move these activities outdoors or to large, well-ventilated spaces.

  • In common areas such as school lobbies and auditoriums.

What options exist when a school cannot universally achieve physical distancing?

The CDC K-12 School Operational Strategy offers several recommendations for providing safe learning environments when physical distancing is not always feasible, including cohorting, staggered scheduling, alternate schedules, etc.