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New COVID guidance for Philly schools includes 5-day quarantine

A young boy wearing a mask rests his head on a desk as he completes a worksheet.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health issued new guidelines for schools Wednesday that include the possibility of a five-day quarantine if certain mitigations measures are in place.

Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Philadelphia’s health department issued new guidance for schools Wednesday that could reduce the quarantine period for staff and students from 10 days to five if certain mitigation measures are in place. 

Health officials also said school closures will no longer be triggered by a specific percentage of positive COVID cases and, because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant, contact tracing will only be done for exposure during high-risk activities, such as lunch. More widespread contact tracing is “unattainable” right now, officials said.

To limit the spread of COVID, the health department recommends masking, testing a random sample of 10% of unvaccinated students weekly, and improved ventilation. They also suggest creating a separate area for staff and students returning from quarantine after five days to eat lunch for days six to 10.

If schools aren’t able to do “one or more of these layers consistently” they should continue using the 10-day standard for isolation and quarantine, according to the new guidance.

“We all recognize that there are no perfect answers,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said during a press briefing. “This guidance is our best current attempt to keep children learning in person as much as possible, while keeping children, teachers and other staff members as safe as possible.” 

Health officials have said in-person learning is important for students, and district officials have tried to keep schools open despite a surge in COVID cases in Philadelphia after the winter break. The district was able to keep most of its schools open this week as staff members returned from quarantine; 15 schools are virtual compared to nearly half of the district’s 216 schools last week.

In response to the new guidelines, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan accused city officials of “continuing to recommend policies misaligned with the reality of the in-school experiences.”

Jordan said the health department is trying to keep schools open “with no concern for school communities.” He called removing the threshold to trigger a building closure – which had been when 10% of the school population tested positive – a “shifting goal post.”

The Policy Lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP, put out new K-12 guidance earlier this month that suggested screening testing would no longer be needed. But Bettigole said the department included screening testing as a criteria for schools that want to move to the five-day period as another layer of mitigation.

The number of COVID cases in Philadelphia has dropped significantly since last week. As of Monday the city is recording an average of 1,979 new cases per day, compared to more than 3,500 cases per day last week, according to the health department. The percentage of tests coming back positive is 21%, down from nearly 30% a week ago.

Despite the new guidance, Bettigole said most schools will likely stick to the 10-day standard.

“I think one of the main things that the guidance provides is that for most schools in the city, we’re anticipating that they will end up staying with the 10 days of isolation and quarantine,” Bettigole said, adding that she has heard from parents who are concerned about having students and staff return to classrooms on “day six or seven” when they could be infectious.

Monica Lewis, a spokesperson for the school district, agreed that few schools will be able to meet the requirements to move to a five-day isolation and quarantine period “due to staffing, space and other constraints.”

Lewis said the district has “gone above and beyond to safely keep our schools open,” and district officials will continue to work closely with the health department to explore “options with the safety of students and staff as our highest priority.”

Amy Roat, the PFT building representative at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, said that she “dreads the five-day quarantine” because many teachers now being “hounded” to come back after 10 days are not completely recovered. 

“It is so clear that the drive to reduce the amount of quarantine days is driven by economics rather than science,” she said. “This is about ‘productivity’ rather than health and safety of staff and students. It is obvious and despicable,” Roat said.

She said the random testing of unvaccinated students is likely to be ineffective, since the same parents who oppose vaccination often also oppose testing. About half the students at Feltonville, a middle school, are not vaccinated, she said. And many, she said, “are still struggling to wear their masks properly.” 

Roat said that while she agrees that in-person school is better, teachers are exhausted, covering classes for absent colleagues and worrying about their own health. “We are getting walloped, the stress level is through the roof,” she said. 
Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting

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