(AP) — Health officials in Pennsylvania’s third-most populous county ordered schools Friday to temporarily halt classroom instruction in what they said was an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The Montgomery County Board of Health mandated that all public and private K-12 schools in the suburban Philadelphia county offer virtual instruction for two weeks beginning Nov. 23. The order affects tens of thousands of students in more than 20 public school districts along with students of charter, private and parochial schools.
Spiking COVID-19 numbers are prompting other Pennsylvania school districts to take action. Pittsburgh Public Schools announced Friday that more than 800 children who resumed classroom instruction just this week — all of them special needs students and English language learners — would have to go back to remote learning.
“While it was a joy to actually see children and teachers in our buildings again, the safety of our students, staff and families is a top priority. We cannot ignore the continued growth of COVID-19 in our area,” Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said in a written statement.
In central Pennsylvania, Derry Township School district canceled in-person classes from Friday until Nov. 30.
In Montgomery County, the unanimous Board of Health vote came one day after dozens of parents and school administrators expressed vehement opposition to the closure plan, calling online education insufficient and accusing the health board of failing to present any evidence linking schools to the wider outbreak.
Board members said Friday that rising cases counts and hospitalizations, along with the potential that children will contract the virus over Thanksgiving break and then spread it in schools, required them to act.
“I completely understand their concerns,” said board member Dr. Francis Jeyaraj, a pediatrician. “But these are difficult times for all of us. It’s a total community effort.”
Board member Barbara Wadsworth, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Main Line Health, said her four hospitals were treating 33 patients for COVID-19 four weeks ago, with that number rising to 106 now.
She said virtual instruction is “difficult and certainly not easy, but I think that if we don’t do this then we will be in a significantly worse situation post-Thanksgiving holiday.”
The board made one small concession, dropping language that made the shutdown more open-ended.
Across Pennsylvania, some schools, including in the state’s largest school district in Philadelphia, have yet to return to classroom instruction, while others started the academic year virtually and then invited students to return to class at least part time. Schools that are open for in-person instruction have responded to small clusters of virus cases by shutting down for several days at a time.
Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide school closure after the pandemic arrived in Pennsylvania last March. For this academic year, the Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends that schools go virtual if the surrounding county is determined to have a “substantial” level of community spread for two consecutive weeks — but leaves the ultimate decision to local authorities.
Like the rest of the U.S., Pennsylvania has seen explosive growth in COVID case numbers. Confirmed cases have nearly doubled in two weeks to an average of more than 4,000 per day, according to AP analysis of data from The Covid Tracking Project. Hospitalizations and the percentage of virus tests coming back positive are also up sharply.