The announcement out of Bucks County early Friday was less a surprise than an inevitability. Across the region, school officials knew some would have to confront coronavirus concerns. The questions were who, where, and when.
The answer — the Central Bucks School District closing five schools after fear of exposure — set in motion a new wave of assurances and action.
“Everybody starts to think about how this might affect them,” said Jennifer Polinchock, assistant superintendent in the Centennial School District, another Bucks County district, which put out an alert to families Friday after the Central Bucks news broke.
Polinchock said the district has been fielding calls from parents and is planning to assemble a list of frequently asked questions, including about keeping students home from school and the prospect of turning to online learning during school closures.
The Great Valley School District in Chester County told parents in a message that if schools closed, the district would provide resources “to allow students to work on their skills at home” — but that the activities would not count as in-school instruction.
In Central Bucks, which closed the five schools Friday after announcing that students and staff there had come into contact with someone with coronavirus, the district canceled after-school activities and shut the rest of the district’s buildings for deep cleaning over the weekend.
While the district did not make a decision Friday about when it would reopen schools, county health officials said Friday evening they had found no evidence of the virus among those who came into contact with the infected person a little less than two weeks ago.
Because the 14-day incubation period will not end until Monday, “we need to remain vigilant during the rest of the weekend,” said David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Department of Health. “If all goes well, I would hope we can reopen schools on Monday.”
The closures came as Pennsylvania logged its first two presumptive cases of the virus — including one in Delaware County — and South Jersey its first as well.
Outside the closed Titus Elementary in Warrington, where a group of students milled around the playground or rode bikes through the vacant parking lot, Nathan Kazmiroski, 10, said he was “a bit nervous” about the potential of the virus coming to Bucks County, and was glad that the district was taking action.
“This is deadly, so anything they do is a good idea,” he said.
His sister Samantha, 13, also said the district made the right call. “It’s best to take as many precautions as possible,” she said.
Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the virus posed “a very, very challenging situation for every superintendent and school board out there: how to keep everybody safe without overreacting or underreacting.”
“I think everyone’s looking for guidance,” he said.
In Delaware County, where officials reported a presumed positive case of coronavirus, “we have been instructed by the state Department of Health that there need to be no changes in the academic environment at the present time,” said George Avetian, senior medical adviser for the county.
Still, districts across the region were confronting the prospect of extended closures. The New Jersey Department of Education said Friday that it had allowed districts increased flexibility in providing home instruction in the event of mandated public health school closures, and is asking all districts to develop plans for that instruction — including for providing special education services to students with disabilities and continuing school nutrition benefits for eligible students.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education last week advised school districts to work with local health officials and update pandemic plans. It had not issued updated guidance as of Friday afternoon.
In Montgomery County, Cheltenham School Superintendent Wagner Marseille told parents that “health providers have shared with us that the prospect of COVID-19 reaching local communities and having a potential impact on schooling is a matter of when, not if,” and said he had contacted local business leaders and the teachers’ union to create a contingency plan “in the event we have to close schools.”
Regina Speaker Palubinsky, the Great Valley superintendent, said in a message to parents that if schools needed to close for more than seven days, “we will work with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to solidify a plan.”
It was unclear how Central Bucks would decide whether to reopen schools Monday. Kopicki, the superintendent, said the district would work with local and state health officials “to evaluate the most current information throughout the weekend.”
District spokesperson Angela Linch said she could not comment on the status of the district students and staff who had been exposed to coronavirus. County officials said “multiple” children and staff from the five closed schools had attended a private gathering with someone who had coronavirus — apparently a Maryland resident who had returned from a cruise Feb. 20, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said during a news conference Friday evening.
Hogan said the Maryland health officials alerted Pennsylvania officials after learning the person had attended an event in the Philadelphia area with students and staff from Central Bucks.
Some of those students and staff showed symptoms of illness but tested negative for coronavirus in results returned from the state’s lab in Exton on Friday evening. The virus’ 14-day incubation period will be over by Monday, said county spokesperson Larry King. The county identified everyone who had attended the gathering, but “very few” had any possible symptoms.
Some residents said people were overreacting. “More people die from the flu,” said Shannon Miller, 32, who was shopping Friday near Tamanend Middle School in Warrington.
Others, like Jen Miller, who has a seventh grader at Tohickon Middle School, said she was “happy that they’re taking the precautions.”
“This thing is really spreading. If we don’t do something, before you know it, it’s going to be everywhere,” she said. “Then, who knows?”
Miller was glad her son was home Friday because he had a cold and was already “somewhat compromised.”
“You don’t even want to send him with a simple cold — that might make him more susceptible to getting something else,” Miller said. Now, she said, “you have to think about all this.”
Still, she wasn’t going to cancel plans to host a birthday sleepover for her son, who turns 13 this weekend. But she said she will stock up on soap.