Donate

Schools across Pa. close due to coronavirus

Philadelphia School District headquarters. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Philadelphia School District headquarters. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Updated 5:42 p.m.

Pennsylvania will close all of traditional public schools and charters for the next two weeks due to coronavirus, Governor Tom Wolf announced Friday.

The governor also said that school districts and charters will not be penalized if they cannot meet the state’s requirement to hold 180 instructional days this school year.

“First and foremost, my top priority as governor – and that of our education leaders – must be to ensure the health and safety of our students and school communities,” Wolf said in a statement.

The federal government has cleared Pennsylvania to serve meals to low-income students in “non-congregate settings” while the closures persist, Wolf added — meaning that children who rely on free lunch and breakfast may still have opportunities to receive food during this shutdown.

State officials also insinuated that the sudden closures could cause them to delay or cancel the standardized tests students take annually. Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera said the state plans to apply for a waiver to the federal law that mandates annual testing if the feds makes those waivers available

Wolf’s decision to close schools statewide came during a frenzied afternoon where counties and districts across the Philadelphia region announced their intent to shutter schools.

Following Montgomery County’s lead on Thursday, closure announcements were made Friday by the School District of Philadelphia, Delaware County, Bucks County and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, the decision, Superintendent William Hite said, was driven by the fact that the city could not staff its public schools due to self-quarantine orders in surrounding counties.

As a result of the closure, roughly 130,000 students will be out of school until March 27. City leaders have repeatedly said that will create major challenges for families, and their decision to close Pennsylvania’s school district came reluctantly.

“We wanted to do everything we could do to keep schools open,” said Hite. “But our inability to staff schools because of the decisions of some of the surrounding counties have made that impossible.

City leaders have noted the importance of free school meals in a city where about a quarter of residents live in poverty. Hite said the school district’s website will be updated regularly with information about “meal pickup and recreational opportunities.”

Schools in southeastern Pa. join Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Diego and Houston among major cities to shutter schools as the coronavirus spreads. Schools have been closed statewide in Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, Michigan, New Mexico, and Oregon.

In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy says it’s “an inevitably” there will be statewide closures of public schools, but officials have not yet made that determination.

The decisions in Pennsylvania capped a chaotic 24 hours, sparked by Governor Tom Wolf’s decision to close all schools in Montgomery County. Philadelphia ended up closing 63 of its schools on Friday because it could not count on teachers from Montgomery County traveling into the city for work.

The School District of Philadelphia tried to soldier on Friday, but officials realized they could not make the staffing numbers work, as many teachers living in the suburbs were discouraged from travelling for work.

City leaders appeared miffed by Wolf’s decision in Montgomery County Thursday, which was designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the county with the most reported cases to date.

As of Friday afternoon, there are 41 reported cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, 18 of which are in Montco.

Officials said the city will work on a plan to staff recreation centers so that families can get meals and childcare during the two-week hiatus.

“We’re trying to line up schools with rec centers and kind of do what we do in the summertime when the kids are out of school,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “It may [include] other places, too. But right now we’re looking at the rec centers.”

Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said officials are essentially trying to take a preparation process that usually lasts all spring and cram it into one weekend.

“We have one working group working on how to feed our kids. We have another working group looking at activities for our kids. And we have a third working group looking at how we are going to staff our operations and provide childcare for our workers,” said Abernathy.

At an earlier press conference on Friday, Abernathy passionately argued for the school district to remain open — highlighting many of the issues that could arise if city schools shutters.

“If we close our schools, we have a huge problem,” he said. “I don’t want to underestimate the impact it’s going to have on families, on their ability to earn a wage. On ability for businesses to continue to function.”

Abernathy added: “With all due respect to Montgomery county…we’re not Montgomery County. And I will guarantee you that there is a kid in Norristown that didn’t get fed today. And that should be our concern.”

The district, which is one of the nation’s 20-largest school systems, was under heavy pressure to close from unions representing staff and administrators. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA) each published letters urging the district to close its doors.

“We are calling for an immediate shutdown and a plan to be activated that considers the health and wellbeing of students,” CASA wrote in a release on Friday. “Due to the overwhelming demand for teacher absences, the substitute system has crashed leaving many schools without any substitute teachers and staff, causing unstable and unsafe conditions for the schools that remain open.”

Hite said he saw the letter from the teacher’s union, but wishes union leaders had come to him directly with concerns.

“I’d much rather we contact each other to actually figure out how we can solve problems than trading letters back,” Hite said.

Many Philadelphia charter school students will also be out of school next week. The school district is attempting to keep an updated list on its website. There are about 70,000 students in Philadelphia’s charter schools.

“This has been a horrible few weeks and [we’re] going to have continuous challenges,” said Abernathy. “But I’m confident in the leadership of the city. I’m confident in our staff. And, quite frankly, I’m confident in our communities.”

Nina Feldman contributed reporting.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal