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As COVID-19 cases surge, should schools stay open? Around the Philly region, approaches vary wildly.

“How did we go from ‘Let’s send everyone back full time,’ to CHOP saying everyone should be closing in the Philadelphia area?” said Jennifer Ross, a Central Bucks parent.

Portraits made by students showing themselves with face masks at Nativity of Our Lord School in Warminster on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.
Portraits made by students showing themselves with face masks at Nativity of Our Lord School in Warminster on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Jennifer Ross was stunned when her school district announced it was ending its option for younger students, like her first and sixth graders, to attend school in person part-time during the pandemic.

A fully virtual option was still open, but if Central Bucks parents wanted their kids back in classrooms, the only choice was five-days-a-week instruction, the district said — a shift that officials said would accommodate the most families but that worried Ross, a nurse and educator who has been tracking the rising rate of positive coronavirus tests in her community.

Then she saw that Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab had recommended that all schools in the area, at least for older grades, revert to virtual programs.

“Are you kidding me?” Ross said. “How did we go from ‘Let’s send everyone back full-time,’ to CHOP saying everyone should be closing in the Philadelphia area?”

As coronavirus cases surge, schools across the region — and the elected officials, health departments, and outside experts guiding them — are taking, in some cases, vastly different approaches, and in the process leaving parents and staff confused if not confounded about the best strategy.

Montgomery County has ordered all K-12 schools closed for in-person instruction for two weeks starting Monday, while the City of Philadelphia is closing high schools, though not schools serving younger students, through Jan. 1. (The Philadelphia School District is operating virtually until further notice, but many private schools have been teaching students in person.)

Meanwhile, the Bucks and Chester County Health Departments — the latter also serves Delaware County — have encouraged schools to continue with their instructional models, even as Pennsylvania’s guidelines advise schools in those counties to offer only virtual instruction because of infection rates.

While Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union has called for schools to follow the state guidelines, it has stopped short of asking the state to impose restrictions as cases have soared. Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Rachel Levine, has repeatedly said her department is letting local authorities decide the best approach — similar to New Jersey, where the state has not ordered any mandates.

As a result, "the decisions are all over the place,” said Katie Quinn, a parent who sits on the school board in Cinnaminson, Burlington County, where a rash of COVID-19 cases meant a two-week shutdown for the high school, including sports and other extracurricular activities. That meant the varsity soccer team, in the middle of a playoff run, was stopped cold through no fault of its own. But the schools of some of its opponents were also closed because of the virus, or had never opened in person — and their teams still played.

“Some districts or schools with a few cases are shutting down, and some districts or schools with several aren’t shutting down," she said.

In Bucks County, Health Director David Damsker maintains that “school is the safest place for kids to be." His Health Department has stood out for some of its recommendations — including that three feet of spacing, rather than the six feet recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is adequate in schools.

Unlike New Jersey, Pennsylvania hasn’t been reporting school outbreaks, meaning information on transmission in schools is largely coming out of county departments like Damsker’s or individual school districts.

Generally, local officials say they haven’t seen much evidence that schools are sources of outbreaks. Philadelphia, for instance, has reported in-school transmission in three out of 95 schools open for in-person learning.

In a recent letter to school districts, Damsker said that “when a school’s health and safety plan is followed, we have not seen any evidence of in-school spread."

But experts at the CHOP PolicyLab have said infection rates among children are rising, and warned that as the current surge further burdens contact tracers, more cases — including in schools — are likely to fall between the cracks.

» READ MORE: Why CHOP lab recommends Philly-area schools close amid coronavirus surge

In Montgomery County, the Lower Merion School District shifted to virtual instruction Tuesday, citing the county’s inability to keep up with contact tracing while “reports of positive cases and quarantines among staff and students are increasing rapidly.”

Schools were “doing well in a time period where we had relatively low spread of virus in our community,” Val Arkoosh, chair of the county commissioners and a physician, said. “We are no longer in that situation.” The county’s rate of positive coronavirus tests has passed 5% — epidemiologists' threshold of concern for wider spread — and officials fear the surge could worsen as people gather indoors over Thanksgiving.

As the level of community spread increases, it’s more likely that students or staff going to school will have the virus, Arkoosh said — a situation complicated by the fact that younger people are more likely to be asymptomatic and might not know they’re carrying it.

While some have questioned a blanket closure of schools before businesses like restaurants, Arkoosh said the county has not identified instances of the virus being transmitted by restaurant employees to diners, or between diners. (“I know many other places have seen that," she said.)

The county is more concerned about gatherings involving young people — including around sports, sleepovers, and parties, Arkoosh said. She said the county had halted school extracurriculars “in the hopes that parents will take this seriously."

“I know it feels like whiplash," Arkoosh said. “We have been doing so well for so long in this county," but "this rise in these cases has been exponential.”

The order generated outrage from parents, who said they raised $10,000, hired a lawyer, and sued the county on Wednesday, alleging it violated the Sunshine Act by restricting public comment and failing to properly publicize the Nov. 13 meeting when the board of health voted.

The board “took a sweeping action that will irreparably harm the lives of hundreds of thousands of Montgomery County residents and wreak havoc on our economy,” reads the lawsuit filed by John Niehls, head of school at Coventry Christian Schools in Pottstown, and county parents Kaitlin Derstine and Liz Weir. A county spokesperson noted the lawsuit challenged the process rather than the county’s authority to issue the order, and expressed confidence the order would stand.

» READ MORE: Montgomery County school buildings ordered closed for two weeks amid coronavirus surge

In New Jersey, Paschal Nwako, Camden County’s health officer, keeps in close contact with school districts and offers guidance, but the call to make school all-virtual is not his. “That is the job of the school district board and the school administration to make that decision,” said Nwako.

At a town-hall meeting Monday night, one parent asked Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche why the district’s decision-making — to open school buildings to students in a hybrid model when other districts were closing — was so different than CHOP’s. Meloche said Cherry Hill officials had reviewed the guidance but it was “one piece of information that we look at.”

While Philadelphia announced Monday that it would order high schools closed, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley emphasized efforts to keep schools open for younger students.

Pointing to emerging evidence from European countries that have left schools open while imposing other restrictions, Farley described the education of children as “crucial to our future."

“We haven’t lost much if we have to eat takeout food, but we’ve lost a lot if our children don’t get educated,” Farley said during a news conference, also noting that “children almost never get seriously ill from COVID."

In neighboring Delaware County, school leaders like Haverford Superintendent Maureen Reusche noted Farley’s distinction between older and younger students — a point the CHOP PolicyLab also made in calling for schools to prioritize shifting older grades to virtual programs.

“The health-care professionals know a little bit more about the virus” than during the spring, when states ordered schools closed, said Reusche, whose district is continuing to offer hybrid in-person and virtual instruction to students.

In Bensalem, where students returned to classrooms Monday, Superintendent Sam Lee said guidance from the state and the CHOP lab recommending virtual instruction had “absolutely” given him pause as the district transitioned from virtual learning to bringing students back part-time. But he said the district was following Bucks County’s guidance and aims to manage risk through social distancing and masking, among other measures.

“If anything, we’ve learned over the last nine months how fluid this whole situation is,” Lee said.