What the slight increase in COVID-19 cases could mean for schools this fall

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Reversing a months-long downward trend, COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania have started to inch up over the past several weeks. Health officials are keeping an eye on the numbers, but they don’t plan on making any major changes, especially when it comes to schools.

Dr. Richard Lorraine, medical director of the Montgomery County Office of Public Health, said they aren’t reading too much into the recent increase because those numbers are still low. He said it all comes down to weighing the safety benefits, like masking in classrooms against the risk of catching the virus — especially among the under-12 crowd, who are still not eligible for the vaccine.

“If the positivity rate is low, if the transmission rate low, the benefit to that is low as well, and therefore we feel the risk of that particular mitigation strategy outweighs the benefit,” Lorraine said, adding it’s not ideal for kids to wear masks all day.

He said it’s no surprise that the vast majority of new cases are among unvaccinated people. While there are some breakthrough cases, symptoms are generally not as severe.

Lorraine said Montgomery County is not planning on issuing a blanket masking requirement in schools — and if cases remain where they are, they will not recommend masking. However, he said his department wants to make sure kids who still want to wear masks are comfortable in classrooms.

Pennsylvania acting Physician General Denise Johnson said masks are only one piece of the puzzle to keep kids under 12 safe, along with hand-washing and social distancing.

“We recommend we take all of the measures we can to keep our kids safe because we want to keep them back in school,” she said.

It’s equally important that kids with coughs or sniffles stay home from school until they get the all-clear.

“It’s always best to get a test and get a negative test than not test at all, especially if you’re going to allow them to be with other people.”

Acting Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Meg Snead said the best way to keep case counts low so kids aren’t required to wear masks in schools is to get vaccinated.

“These vaccines are our most effective resource against this pandemic,” she urged.