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Responding to COVID-19 Case(s) in Schools

Requirements for Schools | Key Terms | Guide for Responding to a Positive COVID-19 Case in Schools | Responding to a COVID-19 Outbreak in Schools

When a case of COVID-19 is identified in a school setting, schools should work with the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) or their county or municipal health department (CMHD) to report aggregate case information and complete contact tracing for individuals diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19.

Schools within a CMHD jurisdiction should work with their local health department when responding to cases of COVID-19 in a school setting.

School officials have the authority to restrict people who are at risk of spreading COVID-19 from entering the school building. Schools do not need, and should not require, a quarantine order to take this action to protect the health and safety of students and staff.

The following is a Pennsylvania-specific guide for responding to COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) also published a Toolkit for Responding to COVID-19 Cases to assist schools across the country in responding to COVID-19. Schools are encouraged to utilize both resources for assistance responding to cases of COVID-19. 

Requirements for Schools

In alignment with requirements in Title 28 Pa. Code Chapter 27 (relating to communicable and noncommunicable diseases), schools must:

  • Report positive cases of COVID-19 to DOH for case investigation, contact tracing, and issuance of quarantine and/or isolation orders; and
  • Exclude school children and staff from having contact with other school children or staff showing symptoms of a communicable disease.

School officials have the authority to restrict people who are at risk of spreading COVID-19 from entering the school building. Schools do not need, and should not require, a quarantine order to take this action to protect the health and safety of students and staff.

Key Terms

Case: A person who either tests positive for COVID-19 or who has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and developed clinically compatible symptoms.

Close Contact: A person who was within six feet of an infected person for 15 consecutive minutes starting two days before illness onset (or for asymptomatic infected people, two days prior to positive test collection) until the time the infected person is isolated. (See definition of "isolation" below.) Although the "close contact" definition is generally 15 consecutive minutes, there are circumstances where 15 cumulative minutes, or less than 15 minutes, may be used.  

In the K–12 indoor classroom setting or a structured outdoor setting where mask use can be observed (i.e., holding class outdoors with educator supervision), the "close contact" definition excludes students who were within three to six feet of an infected student (laboratory-confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) if both the infected student and exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults in the indoor classroom setting.

For additional information on determining close contacts, please access PA-HAN 533. The CDC's Close Contact Decision Tree is an additional helpful tool that may be used to determine close contacts in schools.

Isolation: Separates an individual who is sick with a contagious disease from people who are not sick. Access additional isolation information or refer to CDC's Overview of COVID-19 Isolation for K-12 Schools Please note, isolation and quarantine are official public health terms and directives issued by DOH or CMHDs. School officials have the authority to restrict people who are at risk of spreading COVID-19 from entering the school building. Schools do not need, and should not require, a quarantine order to take this action to protect the health and safety of students and staff.

Who needs to isolate? Any individual, regardless of vaccination status, who experiences symptoms consistent with COVID-19 should isolate and be evaluated for COVID-19 by a health care provider. Any individual who tests positive for COVID-19 should isolate.

How long does a person with COVID-19 need to isolate?

      • Individual with symptoms: the isolation period can end when at least 10 days have passed since symptom onset and 24 hours have passed without fever and other symptoms have improved. Symptom onset should be counted as day zero.
      • Individual without symptoms: the isolation period for an individual without symptoms is at least 10 days since positive test result. Test date should be counted as day zero.

Quarantine: Separates and restricts the movement of an individual who was exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. The CDC's Overview of COVID-19 Quarantine for K-12 Schools offers additional information on quarantine. For additional information on quarantine by vaccination status, please access PA-HAN 583. Please note, isolation and quarantine are official public health terms and directives issued by DOH or CMHDs. School officials have the authority to restrict people who are at risk of spreading COVID-19 from entering the school building. Schools do not need, and should not require, a quarantine order to take this action to protect the health and safety of students and staff.

Who needs to quarantine?

      • An individual who is not fully vaccinated1 against COVID-19 and is identified as a close contact* of a case must quarantine.

Persons who meet the following criteria do NOT need to quarantine:

      • Someone who has been fully vaccinated1 and shows no symptoms of COVID-19. However, fully vaccinated people should get tested three to five days after their exposure, even if they don't have symptoms, and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until their test result is negative.
        Or
      • Someone who has had COVID-19 illness within the previous three months, and
      • Has recovered, and
      • Remains without COVID-19 symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath).

        * In the K–12 indoor classroom setting or a structured outdoor setting where mask use can be observed (i.e., holding class outdoors with educator supervision), the "close contact" definition excludes students who were within three to six feet of an infected student (laboratory-confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) if both the infected student and exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults in the indoor classroom setting.

        How long does a close contact need to quarantine? The most protective recommended quarantine period is 14 days following exposure. However, quarantine can end after day 10 without testing if the individual has not had any symptoms during the quarantine period. Quarantine may end after day seven if a diagnostic test completed on or after day five is negative and the individual has not had symptoms during the quarantine period. The most recent exposure date should be counted as day zero.

        Individuals who are household contacts of the case will need to extend their quarantine for up to 14 days following the case's release from isolation if the case is unable to separate completely from other household members during their isolation period.

Case Investigation: The identification and investigation of individuals who are classified as being a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19. This includes learning when the case was infectious and identifying the people and places they were around while infectious.

Contact Tracing: The subsequent verification, monitoring, and support of contacts who have been exposed to, and possibly infected with, COVID-19.

Outbreak: Two or more cases among students/staff without other identified epidemiological linkages, with onset within 14 days in a single classroom or core group (e.g., teams, band).

Epidemiological link: Characteristic that links two cases, such as close contact between two people or a common exposure. Epidemiological links between cases are considered in the process of determining outbreaks. For example, if two cases occur on a soccer team but the cases are siblings, this would not be considered an outbreak because the transmission can be explained by their linkage as siblings.  Alternatively, if there are two cases on a soccer team and the soccer team is the only source of exposure to one another then this would be considered an outbreak with transmission occurring on the team. 

1An individual is considered fully vaccinated when 2 or more weeks have passed after the receipt of the second dose in a 2-dose vaccine series, or 2 or more weeks have passed after receipt of one dose of a single-dose vaccine.

Guide for Responding to a Positive COVID-19 Case in Schools

Schools within a CMHD jurisdiction should work with their local health department when responding to cases of COVID-19 in a school setting.

  1. Identify the positive case of COVID-19. Schools may be notified of a positive case by the individual or individual's family, by DOH or CMHD, or through their school-based testing program.
  2. Separate the positive case from other students and staff if the person is present in school at the time of identification. Exclude the positive case from school for the duration of their isolation period (as defined above).
  3. Identify close contacts of the case. DOH or CMHD staff can assist schools in identifying close contacts and provide additional guidance as needed.
    Remember: a close contact is an individual who has been within six feet of a case for 15 consecutive minutes. In the K–12 indoor classroom setting or a structured outdoor setting where mask use can be observed (i.e., holding class outdoors with educator supervision), the close contact definition excludes students who were within three to six feet of an infected student (laboratory-confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) if both the infected student and exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults in the indoor classroom setting.
  4. Exclude close contacts from school and notify the families of close contacts of possible exposure.
    1. Notify the school community of the presence of COVID-19 within the school setting and that all people determined to be close contacts have been notified.
  5. Use the COVID Return Date Calculator to determine when the positive case and close contacts may return to school.
  6. Report cases and close contacts to DOH
    1. Use survey tool to report aggregate cases and close contacts to DOH on a weekly basis.

    In addition to this guide, schools may refer to CDC's Responding to COVID-19 Cases in K-12 Schools: Resources for School Administrators for more information. 

    Responding to a COVID-19 Outbreak in Schools

    If a school is experiencing an outbreak or a rise in cases, the school can contact DOH or their local CMHD if additional guidance on outbreak response is needed. To preserve safe in-person learning to the greatest extent possible, DOH staff will work with schools to determine if a closure is necessary and if so, the appropriate closure length, with a maximum 14-day recommendation for full incubation period.

    A maximum 14-day suspension of in-person learning may be recommended by DOH if the following criteria are met:

    • 5% of students/staff confirmed cases in a 14-day window:
      • Small school (<500 staff & students): 25 case threshold
      • Medium school (500-900 staff & students): 25-45 case threshold
      • Large school (900+ staff & students): 45+ case threshold

    OR

    • Three simultaneous classroom and/or core group outbreaks when:
      • Contact tracing cannot adequately identify close contacts or be completed in a timely manner; and
      • Other mitigation strategies such as physical distancing or universal masking are not being implemented or adhered to.

    The criteria outlined above will be used by DOH to determine if a recommendation for a maximum 14-day suspension of in-person learning is appropriate. DOH and PDE support continuation of in-person learning and will limit closure recommendations when possible. Recommendations for one- to two-day closures may be provided when schools need additional time to identify, notify, and exclude close contacts. Longer closures may be recommended for an entire school or specific cohort (e.g., an entire grade) when the large numbers of cases or close contacts present logistical and safety concerns. The decision to close for any length of time remains a local decision. Schools may use other criteria to determine if a suspension of in-person learning is necessary for their local school community.