By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Pennsylvania health officials said Thursday the first COVID-19 variant case in the commonwealth has been confirmed in Dauphin County. Officials also said elementary school students should return to school but not middle or high school students.

The state recommendations are not mandatory. Locally, schools are all over the place with either remote learning, in-person or hybrid.

The state’s largest teacher’s union criticized the new guidance as being premature and said the state needs better ways to ensure health and safety guidance.

“The ability to provide in-person learning in a safe environment is extremely important,” Noe Ortega, the acting state education secretary, said.

Even though COVID-19 is still widespread throughout Pennsylvania, the acting secretary of education says elementary students should be back in the classroom.

The new recommendation that goes into effect on Jan. 25 replaces the previous guidance that urged virtual learning in communities with high virus levels.

“While these are not mandatory, it is up to school leaders to make a decision on whether or not local factors permit them to return elementary students to in-person instruction,” Ortega said.

COVID is considered less risky for elementary students, and there’s no indication the virus spreads widely in schools.

“The educational benefits of in-person learning, especially for younger children, are very clear,” Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.

The health secretary said schools would need to enforce safety measures like social distancing, masks, and hygiene. The state is not changing its remote learning recommendations for middle school or high schools.

Levine also addressed the COVID-19 variant from the UK that’s more contagious being found in Pennsylvania.

“This is not surprising,” Levine said “We expect to see the variant, we expect to see some more cases of the variant in Pa. and the United States.”

The person with the COVID variant lives in Dauphin County, where Harrisburg is located. The case is linked to international travel. The individual recovered in isolation at home after experiencing mild symptoms.

There are about 50 cases of the variant in several states, including New York, Florida and California. Officials say it’s more contagious than what’s been spreading, but they think it will respond to the vaccine.

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Stephanie Stahl