Parents, schools push back over proposed shutdown order

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Don’t you dare close the schools.

That was the impassioned message that dozens of parents and school administrators sent to public health officials in Pennsylvania’s third-most populous county on Thursday, forcing delay of an expected vote on whether to temporarily ban in-person instruction because of a surge in coronavirus cases.

The Montgomery County Board of Health had been scheduled to vote on a proposed order mandating that all public and private K-12 schools in the suburban Philadelphia county offer online-only instruction for at least two weeks — and potentially for longer — beginning Nov. 23.

Board staff cited a recommendation from PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the potential for children to contract the virus over Thanksgiving break and then spread it in schools.

Parents and school administrators denounced the proposal during the board’s public Zoom meeting, saying online-only education can’t meet children’s educational, social and emotional needs. Parents of special education students, in particular, said their children suffered when schools shut down in the spring.

Critics also said the board provided no evidence that schools have been significant vectors of transmission. Of 50 speakers, only one was in favor of a move to virtual education.

“If you’re saying that school is a low-risk, low-spreader environment, then why are we closing it?” said Lisa Barry, who has two children in the Upper Dublin School District. “That’s not the problem, so that should not be the solution."

The pushback in Montgomery County echoed a larger debate over schools in Pennsylvania as the virus spreads unrestrained in the state and across the U.S. The state's largest teachers union this week demanded that many schools pause in-person instruction, while the Philadelphia school district scuttled plans to transition to a hybrid model of instruction.

In Bucks County, though, health officials say the virus is not spreading in schools. While 260 students and 60 staff members at Bucks County schools have been infected since the beginning of the academic year, their exposures happened outside of the classroom, Dr. David Damsker, director of the county health department, said this week.

And at Thursday's meeting in neighboring Montgomery County, public and private school administrators told the health board that, to this point, the schools’ health and safety plans had largely succeeding in keeping the virus at bay. They asked the board to allow them to remain open for in-person instruction.

“We have been in school 11 weeks. Our children are so happy. We have a loving and supportive learning environment here, and I can’t even imagine having to tell the children that we may not be in school. Because I’ll cry and I know they will,” said Sister Mary Catherine Chapman, principal of Queen of Angels Regional Catholic School in Willow Grove.

The health board said it would put off the vote until Friday as it considers public input. If approved, the order would affect tens of thousands of students in more than 20 school districts along with students of charter, private and parochial schools.

Some Montgomery County school districts have been offering in-person instruction since the beginning of the academic year, while others have just started to bring students back to class. Elementary students in Spring-Ford Area School District, for example, returned to school only Thursday.

The state recommends virtual instruction in counties determined to have a “substantial” level of community transmission for two consecutive weeks.

The state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, noted Thursday that the state guidelines are not mandatory, but that “if you’re in the substantial range, we want you to consider whether remote is best for your school district.” Speaking at a separate online news conference, she said the state might adjust the guidelines at some point. She did not elaborate.

While the Pennsylvania Department of Health does not publish data on transmission of COVID-19 inside schools, some have temporarily shut down this fall over small clusters of cases.

Colleges and universities, meanwhile, have been dealing with their own COVID outbreaks. In Wilkes-Barre, King’s College said Thursday that it planned to suspend in-person classes for the rest of the semester because of a rise in cases among students.

Pennsylvania is experiencing a large wave of the virus. The state has been setting daily records for new confirmed cases, which are up nearly 80% in two weeks to an average of nearly 3,700 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.


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