Montgomery County schools will be required to shift to 100% virtual learning between Nov. 23 and Dec. 6.
The county Board of Health voted unanimously to approve the change Friday, saying it would prevent further spread of the coronavirus, help flatten the curve in the county and allay the spike in hospitalizations that the state and county are seeing.
"We're trying to anticipate, we're trying to think ahead, we're trying to put our county in the best position possible," board member Dr. Martin Trichtinger said.
The board had delayed its vote from Thursday, after hours of public comment from parents and school leaders, of whom a wide majority wanted to keep some form of in-person learning and leave the decision up to the individual districts and school systems.
Several of the parents who spoke in the full-capacity Zoom meeting Thursday did not want in-person learning to stop, saying their child preferred it to virtual. A few parents who are working from home during the pandemic said they couldn't juggle their job responsibilities while attending to their child's learning needs.
And many of the public commenters wanted the board to set a threshold number of cases or percent positivity needed to warrant closure - with many pointing out there were no cases of the virus in their school.
But Trichtinger said the state Department of Education would only intervene (and close schools) if the positivity rate hit 10% - a serious situation. Statewide, the positivity rate is about 7% and more than 50 counties have a positivity rate above 5%, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Thursday.
"If we do nothing right now, all we are doing is sort of abdicating our position. And basically, hitting 10% would be handing things over to the state Department of Education," Trichtinger said. "So I look at this as a way to try and keep our children in the schools as long as possible."
They'll know if the plan worked in a few weeks, if the state says the virus numbers in the county are safe for a return to in-person learning, Trichtinger said.
Multiple board members were concerned that cases would spike post-Thanksgiving if some students had family gatherings.
"Four weeks ago I had 33 [COVID] patients in my four hospitals, today I have 106," said board member Barbara Wadsworth, the chief nursing officer at Main Line Health. "We are being dramatically impacted...the rate of spread has gone up dramatically. ...When you get to a rate of substantial transmission, there's recommendations about what we should do."
"It's difficult, certainly not easy. But I think that if we don't do this, then we will be in a significantly worse situation post-Thanksgiving holiday," Wadsworth added.
The order the board voted on Friday does not allow for extending the closures past Dec. 6. Chair Dr. Michael Laign noted the board meets again on Dec. 2 and could decide about further closures at that time.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's largest teacher's union has called for more virtual learning to prevent the spread of the virus. And the PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has recommended schools shift to virtual to prevent cases among young people.
Such decisions are complicated by a host of conflicting concerns — namely, safety versus the potential educational and economic damage from schooling children at home, in front of computers, under their parents' supervision.
Virus transmission does not appear to be rampant within schools themselves. Instead, many of the infections that are proving so disruptive are believed to be occurring out in the community. Educators fear things could get worse during upcoming holiday breaks, when students and staff gather with family and friends or travel to other hot spots.
The nation has entered “an extremely high-risk period,’’ said experts at PolicyLab. They shifted their advice this week, advocating online-only instruction for areas with rapidly rising rates, at least until after Thanksgiving.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.