Jamie Erfle has never seen her children appreciate school as much as they have this fall.
“They’re just so excited to be back in school,” Erfle said of her second and fourth graders, who attend the Wissahickon School District’s Shady Grove Elementary School in Ambler. “They wake up early. They are so excited to get on the bus.”
But that will end soon, at least temporarily, because the Montgomery County Board of Health on Friday ordered all K-12 schools to revert to online instruction for two weeks starting Nov. 23 to block what officials fear could develop into a substantial coronavirus outbreak in schools after Thanksgiving.
Disappointment with that order and fear that two weeks could turn into months — a potentially devastating interruption for children who have already “suffered so much” — spurred Erfle to attend a Sunday morning protest outside the Wyndmoor residence of Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners and a physician. The song “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats played on repeat from a portable speaker as parents and students held protest signs in the street.
“The districts were so on top of this. We’re not the problem,” said Erfle, a Blue Bell resident with an older son in sixth grade who had just two days in class before the closure announcement last week. A fourth child attends pre-K at Center Square Montessori Schoolhouse, which is allowed to stay open because it has a day-care license, she said.
Arkoosh, in a statement responding to the protest, said she supports the right of Americans to peacefully protest.
“As a parent, I understand that the past 37 weeks have been extremely difficult for everyone in our community, and I respect these parents for advocating for what they believe is best for their children,” she wrote. “I want to make clear that I want in-person school to continue, and based on our data in Montgomery County, our team believes this five- to eight-day pause in in-person schooling will support this goal."
Two days before the Montgomery County decision, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab had urged all schools in the region to return to virtual instruction, at least for older grades, starting this week and continuing through New Year’s. That recommendation came as the number of new COVID-19 cases in the region was reaching new daily highs.
Other suburban counties gave no indications last week that they had plans to issue blanket shutdown orders. The Philadelphia School District has not opened yet this year for in-person instruction. Last week it canceled a plan to resume classroom instruction on Nov. 30 until further notice.
On Sunday, the superintendent of schools for the Haddonfield School District announced that Haddonfield Memorial High School, which had been operating under a hybrid model, will return to fully virtual instruction starting Monday until Nov. 30. Superintendent Chuck Klaus cited a positive COVID-19 test result, “several” potential others, staff concerns, and students not attending in person because of quarantining.
Jaret Gale, who organized the protest at Arkoosh’s house and has a daughter in eighth grade in the Perkiomen Valley School District., said he’s in favor of reasonable measures to protect the population.
“If it were just one week after Thanksgiving, I wouldn’t be out here doing this,” Gale said of the protest attended by as many as 50 people. “My concern is that it started out with two weeks before and now they have it left open to reexamine it. Who knows if they’re going to take it further. That’s our concern.”
The shutdown in the spring was terrible for Gale’s daughter, he said. “She went from a straight-A student to a failing student due to the virtual learning assignments, and her mental health started to decline.”
Megan Hughes, 17, a senior at Perkiomen School, a private institution in Pennsburg, on Saturday attended a protest in Norristown outside the Montgomery Department of Public Health office to speak out against the remote-learning order. “I feel completely safe in school,” Hughes said, adding she is worried about being stuck at home again.
“I’m a healthy, active 17-year-old, but at the end of quarantine I was hanging on by a thread because my mental health wasn’t able to sustain that period of isolation,” she said.
For families with special-needs children, remote learning is particularly difficult, said Kaitlin Derstine, who helped lead Saturday’s protest and organized a Facebook group called Parents for In Person Education, which has attracted 3,300 members in less than three days.
Derstine has a 5-year-old on the autism spectrum who is in kindergarten at Franconia Elementary School in the Souderton School District, which she praised for doing a great job protecting kids from the coronavirus.
“I did virtual learning for four months last year, and it does not work," said Derstine, describing how she had to work one-on-one with her son after watching what the teachers did. "These children get overstimulated by the screens, and then they run around the room. You can’t focus a special-needs child unless they are in a controlled environment looking at a person.”
“He has flourished” back in school, Derstine said. “The leap that I’ve seen in him is just amazing. Where I was just maintaining where he was at, now he’s exceeding what we thought he could even do.”