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Montgomery County delays vote on closing schools in response to coronavirus surge after uproar from angry parents

“What you are proposing is causing irreparable damage" to children and families, one of many angry parents told members of the county's board of public health.

Students with face masks walk through the hallway at Nativity of Our Lord School in Warminster in September.
Students with face masks walk through the hallway at Nativity of Our Lord School in Warminster in September.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

After more than two hours of public comments — largely from angry parents adamant that schools should not be closed — the Montgomery County Board of Health on Thursday pushed back a vote on whether to shut down schools for two weeks.

The board will reconvene at noon Friday to consider the proposed shutdown order, which would close all K-12 schools in the county for two weeks starting Nov. 23, and halt school sports and other extracurriculars.

“I think it would behoove us to recess and really think about everything that’s been said,” said Michael Laign, the board chair, after a Zoom meeting that drew 500 people, the maximum that could participate.

The proposed order — which county health officials recommended as an effort to help mitigate the current surge in coronavirus cases — met with fierce backlash from parents, who flooded the Zoom chat with comments opposed to a shutdown. Dozens spoke out against the order, saying their local schools had been operating so far this fall without outbreaks, and expressed bafflement that schools would be closed before businesses like bars and restaurants.

» READ MORE: CHOP lab recommends Philly-area schools close amid coronavirus surge. Some say they’re staying put.

“What you are proposing is causing irreparable damage” to parents and families, said Liz Weir, a parent in the Wissahickon School District, which has been offering in-person learning to younger children all fall.

Some school administrators also urged the board to not impose a blanket mandate.

“Can we get at the root cause another way?” said Barbara Russell, superintendent of the Perkiomen Valley School District. She asked the board to focus specifically on schools that were struggling with the virus, and said she worried that if all schools shift to a virtual model, the virus’ spread “could actually potentially increase,” pushing children into less-regulated settings.

County officials said they weren’t backing off the recommendation. Val Arkoosh, a physician and chair of the county commissioners, said at a news conference later Thursday that if students, teachers, and staff return to the classroom the week after Thanksgiving, it “could trigger a very substantial outbreak within our schools.”

“We are not trying to close schools for the duration here,” Arkoosh said. “We are advising to take a pause for this Thanksgiving holiday and go to a virtual education in the hopes it will protect students, the teachers, and the staff so they can come back in person.”

» READ MORE: How are coronavirus cases in schools being reported? ‘It’s a hodge-podgey mess.’

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab on Wednesday advised schools across the region to revert to virtual instruction by Monday, saying that current levels of community spread warrant closures and that hospitals run the risk of becoming overwhelmed if cases continue to rise.

While most infections of children and staff have occurred out of school, David Rubin, the CHOP research team’s director, said there was “increasing evidence” of transmission in schools around the area.

Since Pennsylvania doesn’t publish data on school outbreaks, it’s hard to assess how much or where the virus has spread in school settings. Other local counties — which have said they have seen minimal in-school transmission of the virus — have not indicated they are weighing school closures.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Thursday that the state was advising school districts with “substantial” levels of community transmission — a threshold set by the state that currently includes Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties — to consider moving to remote instruction. However, she said it would be "up to the school district and the superintendent in the locality to make that decision.”

Asked about the proposed Montgomery County order, Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf, said Thursday the administration “is supportive of the county’s decision." She declined to comment on the CHOP lab’s calling for schools around the region to shift to virtual programs.

A number of parents who spoke during Thursday’s meeting said they worried the two-week shutdown prescribed by the Montgomery County order could last much longer. Some said they had transferred their children into area private schools specifically to receive in-person instruction, and voiced deep frustration that students could now be forced home.

“It’s all fake. This is not true. There’s no evidence that schools are significantly causing this problem, and you pretend that it is,” said Michael Napolitan, who has a child in the Upper Merion School District. He transferred his other child, who is 7, to a Catholic school after a virtual learning “disaster” in the spring.

Before opening Thursday’s meeting to public comment, Janet Panning, the county’s interim health administrator, said the county had seen “a rapid increase in hospitalizations” related to the coronavirus.

During a period of “peak contagion," she said, the proposed order is “essential to ensure the protection of children, teachers, school staff” and the general community.

Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Ellie Silverman contributed to this article.