Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday ordered all K-12 schools statewide to close for two weeks, providing a dose of clarity for families and school leaders trying to navigate the coronavirus threat — and bringing the impact of the virus to the doorsteps of millions of Pennsylvanians.
Pennsylvania became the eighth state to shutter its schools, following Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and others. The directive applies to public and charter schools and also encourages private schools to close.
The governor said his decision came after he was "convinced by educators” that the measure could curb the spread of infection. And he announced steps to deal with the fallout: He released districts from the requirement that they provide 180 instructional days, said the administration would seek waivers on standardized testing requirements, and secured federal permission for districts to provide food for families who rely on the schools for daily meals.
Wolf’s administration said the decision was also influenced by “ripple effects” of his Thursday order to close all schools in Montgomery County, which threw adjacent areas into chaos since so many teachers live in one county and work in another.
The region’s response to the spread of the virus escalated Friday as more employers told staff to work from home, some courts and local governments curtailed operations, and hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons restricted or banned visitors in a bid to stem the spread of the illness. The coronavirus has infected at least 1,700 people in the United States and has killed about 5,000 worldwide.
“Please stay calm,” Wolf implored Pennsylvanians, “and by all means, stay home.”
In Philadelphia, all museums on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Barnes Foundation, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and the Franklin Institute — said they would close for at least two weeks beginning Saturday.
In New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy did not order school closures Friday but acknowledged they were “an inevitability,” Camden, Cherry Hill, Pennsauken, and Gibbsboro School Districts said they would close for two weeks. Burlington County announced that its schools would close for one month starting Monday.
In Delaware, Gov. John Carney also told schools statewide to close for two weeks.
New Jersey’s number of cases nearly doubled from Thursday to Friday, reaching 50 statewide, including one new diagnosis in Camden County. Pennsylvania officials tallied 41 presumed coronavirus infections, with new cases announced Friday in multiple counties. Montgomery County, which Wolf has called the epicenter of the state’s outbreak, reached 18 cases; Chester County got its first.
Wolf said he was expanding the social distancing measures he had recommended for Montgomery County to neighboring Delaware County — where officials announced five new cases Friday. Though he said at a news conference that the state would not enforce any closures, the governor had been urging gyms, community centers, and entertainment venues to close and recommended “nonessential” retail businesses shut their doors for two weeks.
“It’s so important that we all heed this advice,” Delaware County Councilwoman Elaine Schaefer told residents Friday night. “We can learn from other countries and stay ahead of the spread of the virus.”
More than 30 people in the county, including 11 inmates, were being quarantined Friday after a staff member at the county jail tested positive for the coronavirus, according to documents obtained by The Inquirer.
Chester County officials became the first in the area to enact a plan to limit county operations to “essential” employees and purposes. About three-quarters of county employees will not need to report to work beginning Saturday, said county leaders, who also closed libraries, county parks, and trails. Delaware and Camden Counties were also making plans to operate with reduced staff in coming days.
“All of these measures may make things inconvenient for a time,” Chester County Commissioners Chair Marian Moskowitz said, “but we believe the short-term pain will result in long-term gain.”
But in Philadelphia, even as schools shut down, city officials said they were not cutting back other services or restricting prison visits. Court trials were scheduled to continue as usual.
“My responsibility is to give all these talented people that work for the administration and the district the latitude and the ability to do their jobs,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. "We’ve never been through this before at this level, and we’re doing our best hour by hour.”
After Wolf’s call to close schools, the state’s largest teachers’ union and associations representing school boards and administrators praised the governor.
“It’s the right decision, without a doubt,” said Christopher Marchese, superintendent of the Avon Grove School District in Chester County. “It was just a matter of time before we got to this point.”
With the state’s federal waiver for eligible schools to serve meals to low-income students through “a drive-through or grab-and-go” method, some districts were attempting to make plans for food distribution. In Cheltenham, leaders had already announced grab-and-go bags for families, to be provided the next two Wednesdays at the district’s administration building.
As a result of the release from the 180-day rule, a number of districts said they would not be mandating schoolwork during the closures.
"I want everyone to just stop, take a breath, reconnect with their families," said Maureen Reusche, superintendent of the Haverford Township School District. She said administrators would "reconvene Monday afternoon with a clearer mind" to plan next steps.
Villanova University told students to leave campus by Sunday; it had already announced plans to move classes online. At Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, some campus members were alerted that they could have been exposed to the coronavirus in recent weeks. The New Jersey Health Department notified Princeton University that one of two staff members under self-isolation had tested positive.
Beyond schools, the lockdown spread: Federal courts in eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware County courts, like Montgomery County, suspended new trials; three of Philadelphia’s largest employees — Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and the University of Pennsylvania — told employees to work from home; visits to Pennsylvania state prisons were barred for two weeks.
Philadelphia electric and natural gas utility Peco, and New Jersey’s PSE&G and Atlantic City Electric all suspended utility shutoffs. Philadelphia sheriff sales scheduled for the next two weeks have been postponed, according to a court order issued Friday.
And everywhere, officials and community leaders were consumed with responding to the fast-changing crisis.
“The closest thing this compares to is Superstorm Sandy,” said the New Jersey governor’s director of recovery efforts, Daniel Kelly, referring to the 2012 hurricane that ravaged the state. “But even Sandy, there’s a certain playbook. This is difficult [because] the storm hasn’t fully, fully hit yet.”