Montgomery County votes for all schools to go virtual as COVID-19 rises

Upper Dublin High School in Montgomery County. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Upper Dublin High School in Montgomery County. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

All K-12 public and private schools in Montgomery County will move entirely online for two weeks starting Nov. 23 to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The order does not make an exception for students with special needs, and also cancels extracurricular activities.

The order was passed unanimously by the county’s Board of Health Friday, despite hundreds of parents and residents speaking out against the move online.

“I completely understand parents’ concerns,” said board member Francis Jeyaraj, a pediatrician. “But these are difficult times for all of us. It’s a total community effort.”

Board member Martin Trichtinger invoked a quote attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky about skating towards where the puck is going to be to justify his vote.

“To be honest that is what we are trying to do here,” he said. “We are trying to put our county in the best position possible.”

Montgomery County’s COVID-19 test positivity rate has more than doubled in the last month.

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. This week the School District of Philadelphia delayed a plan to bring the youngest children back to the classroom part time after Thanksgiving.

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

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

Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh praised the board’s action Friday as a ”proactive approach” ahead of Thanksgiving gatherings.

“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 brief pause in in-person schooling will support this goal,” said Arkoosh in a statement.

Montgomery County’s Board of Health had planned to vote on the order Thursday, but decided to delay after more than two hours of emotional comment from parents and residents — virtually all of whom argued against closing schools.

“There’s no evidence this is even affecting the schools. You are impacting families. Impacting them financially. Impacting them emotionally,” Michael Napolitan testified. “There is no reason for this. It’s all fake.”

More than 3,000 people tuned in on Friday to watch the vote. Once again, the comments were almost entirely against moving schools online.

“How is it that all of these non-elected officials can impact our families so severely. Do we have any recourse?” said Amie Mattes.

Many parents are skeptical that in-person classes will resume this calendar year.

“Students aren’t going back on Dec 6. Don’t kid yourself,” said Michael Demar.

The board will meet next on Dec. 2.

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