Prolonged school closures became a reality in the Philadelphia region Thursday, as Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a shutdown across Montgomery County in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The governor’s order also resulted in the Philadelphia School District’s deciding that 63 city schools would be closed Friday because many of their teachers reside in Montgomery County, whose residents have been advised to avoid nonessential travel and to not report to work. The decision was made public in a statement late Thursday that listed the 63 schools. The statement only referenced Friday and did not indicate whether the schools would reopen next week.
The schools are all over the city, and include Central and Roxborough High Schools, Olney Elementary, and Girls’ High.
The governor’s move, announced as part of broader countywide closures lasting two weeks, echoed cancellations at K-12 schools around the country, and came as Maryland and Ohio closed schools statewide.
“I’m actually relieved that the governor got involved in this,” said John Toleno, superintendent of the Upper Merion Area School District. “It takes the pressure off all of us” to decide how to handle closures.
It also touched off another ripple effect in Chester County, where the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District announced that it would also close for two weeks, because 25% of its teaching staff lives in Montgomery County. Superintendent Richard Gusick told parents in a letter Thursday night that to remain “in keeping with the spirit” of Wolf’s containment action, those teachers shouldn’t come to work.
“As a result, we will be unable to operate our schools with such a limited number of staff,” Gusick said.
For parents who still have to report to work, the closures spurred worry and a scramble for child care.
“They’re putting us in the position to make this choice — what’s more important, my job or my family?” said Kathryn Lajara, a special-education teacher in Philadelphia and the mother of two children, ages 12 and 9, in the Wissahickon School District. With just three personal days for the entire school year, Lajara said, she was worried about what might happen if she had to go beyond the days in her bank.
Wolf announced the closure order based on the concentration of coronavirus cases in Montgomery County. He said it applied not just to school districts, but pre-K, higher education and private schools.
Many colleges already have extended spring break and moved instruction online, but have kept their campuses open and their employees working. Some officials said they were seeking clarity on how the order would affect them.
Before Thursday, school districts had been making day-to-day decisions about closures for cleaning after potential exposure to coronavirus and for planning for remote learning. Some have been surveying families on whether they have internet access at home.
Several Montgomery County school districts said they were not planning to give students formal assignments during the closures, in part because they didn’t want to further burden parents or other caregivers. Instead, they planned to provide “enrichment activities” for students.
“These closures are going to impose some stress on our parents and community,” said Upper Dublin Superintendent Steven Yanni, noting day cares would be closed as well.
Limited technology also hindered the prospect of virtual lessons for some: In Norristown, "it was not feasible for us to turn around and say we’re going to expect virtual learning for the next two weeks,” said Superintendent Christopher Dormer. He said school leaders would likely encourage students to read daily or do math exercises on websites.
Toleno, in Upper Merion, said it would be difficult to require students to complete work during the absence.
“It’s really a road I don’t want to walk down. You’re moving into a personal space,” he said, noting it would be tough to verify whether students had legitimate excuses for not doing work — like family illness, or child care issues.
Superintendents said they were told by state officials they would be able to seek waivers for the lost school days.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera said Montgomery County parents should consider the next two weeks “almost like snow days.”
“So when you wake up in the morning and we say school is closed because of snow, the plan around having those kinds of emergency days is the same,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Education Department said federal officials had granted approval for schools to serve meals off-site to low-income students. “These meals will be available at no cost … and make it possible for kids to receive nutritious meals and snacks while schools are temporarily closed,” the department tweeted Thursday.
Montgomery County schools said Thursday they were still determining how students in the meal program might continue to receive food.
Philadelphia’s decision to keep schools open drew fire from people who questioned the wisdom of doing so, especially in the face of the city’s ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Northeast High School, for instance, educates 3,500 young people.
Joey Ippolito, who teaches at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts and lives in Plymouth Meeting, said he feels lucky that his wife can work remotely while their two children stay home. But he worries about bringing germs home to his family, or even exposing his students.
“The answer we’re being given is pretty glib. They’re saying, ‘We’re tougher than the virus,’” Ippolito said. “Are you kidding me? This is a pandemic.”
Other schools continued to announce cancellations Thursday. Friends Select, a Philadelphia private school, said it would switch to distance learning beginning Monday, and told families to plan for at-home learning “to potentially last until at least” April 10. Others canceled field trips, musicals and sporting events.
Upper Darby Superintendent Daniel McGarry said leaders think the national movement toward limiting large gatherings “is necessary to keep our students, families and communities healthy."