Montco punts decision on virtual school after backlash from angry parents

Lower Merion High School (Image via Benofmerion/Wikimedia Commons)

Lower Merion High School (Image via Benofmerion/Wikimedia Commons)

Montgomery County’s Board of Health punted on a vote to shut down schools in the county for two weeks due to rising coronavirus cases in the area, after dozens of angry parents spoke out against the decision in a tumultuous meeting that ran nearly three hours.

The board had been scheduled to vote Thursday on an order that would require all K-12 students in the county to learn virtually from Nov. 23 to Dec. 6, with a potential extension past that date.

However, at the conclusion of 2 ½ hours of public testimony — virtually all of it against the proposed shutdown — Board Chair Michael Laign abruptly postponed the vote until noon Friday.

“I appreciate everyone’s concern and sense of urgency,” Laign said.

Many of the parents attending the meeting via Zoom were furious at the delay, noting they had cleared their schedules to attend.

“You are disrespecting us,” one said before the meeting organizer muted all attendees but the board members and staff.

Michelle Masters, Montgomery County’s Division Director for Communicable Disease, said the county’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has more than doubled in the last month.

“With this order, [the Office of Public Health] is attempting to support stabilization of cases,” Masters said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has suggested that schools in counties where there are “substantial” amounts of COVID-19 transmission should conduct all classes online.

Philadelphia and three of its four collar counties meet the statistical threshold for “substantial” transmission. The lone exception, as of now, is Chester County.

The meeting came a day after Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, which has been advising state and local education officials since the pandemic began, suggested that all Philadelphia-area schools go fully virtual to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We have convincing evidence that this winter wave has moved in very quickly,” David Rubin, the doctor who heads the PolicyLab, told WHYY News.

On Monday, the School District of Philadelphia announced that it was cancelling its plan to bring some young children back to the classroom after Thanksgiving due to rising COVID cases.

Across the country, some public health officials have been arguing that it is safe to have young students in classrooms, citing evidence suggesting they are least likely to spread the virus and most in need of face-to-face instruction. It’s a position some epidemiologists and countries continue to endorse, even as case counts rise.

The Montgomery County Board of Health’s virtual meeting had 500 people attending  — the maximum capacity of a Zoom call.

Virtually all of them were vociferously opposed to moving to virtual learning. They argued it will keep their children from learning and make managing both work and parenting too difficult. They also fear a shutdown will inevitably extend past two weeks.

“What you are proposing is causing irreparable damage to countless children and their families,” said Liz Weir, whose kids attend school in the Wissahickon School District. “ And the callousness with which you are talking about it makes it seem so simple to return to virtual learning … it is astounding in its arrogance.”

Lafayette Hill resident Al Belmando said he moved his two young children from public to private school this year because they had struggled so much with virtual learning. He said he doesn’t know how he and his wife can juggle their jobs while monitoring their kids online.

“You are absolutely delusional if you don’t think school is a form of child care,” he said.

At times, the speakers and comments took an angry tone, with some people asking whether board members had children in school.

“We don’t trust you,” said Colleen Leader, who said she has four kids in Montgomery County schools. “You said two weeks [for the initial shutdown]. We followed it. Two hundred and some days later, you are trying to tell us it’s two weeks — I am all done …you are destroying lives.”

After more than two hours of comments, the meeting saw its first speaker in favor of the shutdown.

Montco resident Danielle Otero said she worries about her child with special needs but has been hearing from family members working in emergency medicine who are increasingly overwhelmed.

“Kids may be fine, and we likely don’t even know about those who are asymptomatic, but what about the teachers and staff?” she asked. “Right now, health must come before education.”

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