All Pennsylvania schools are now closed for two weeks. Here's how that might look

Staff and wire report

York County schools are closing for two weeks amid concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus, which was recently declared a global pandemic.

Most local districts announced their closures Friday afternoon, followed by an announcement from the governor that closures would be mandated statewide.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf elected to close all public and private K-12 schools in the state, affecting 1.7 million children.

On Sunday, the state Department of Health announced that there were 63 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Pennsylvania. No cases have been confirmed in York County.

Southern York County School District was the first district in York County to close, sending out a notice late Thursday that Friday classes would be canceled because a "community member" was being tested for coronavirus.

Schools such as Central York, Hanover Public and Dallastown Area had been battling misinformation about school closures and coronavirus updates on social media.

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Parents and guardians gather to pick up students at New Salem Elementary School at the end of the school day Friday, March 13, 2020. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania schools closed for 2 weeks starting Monday in an effort to contain the Cover-9 virus. Most York County Districts will be closed through March 30. Bill Kalina photo

Schools will be closed through March 30, according to district websites. Extracurricular activities and athletics also are canceled, with details available online.

Before the governor's order, local superintendents met together Friday morning — in addition to a meeting with state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera — and decided to close all of the schools in the county.

"During these discussions, it was impossible to ignore the interconnectedness of our districts and communities," said York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams in a Friday letter.

"This interconnectivity, coupled with the ease with which the coronavirus has the ability to spread, made the need for quick and decisive action evident," the letter reads.

Many districts noted in their official communications that students would be sent home with planned coursework, though some are still working out the specifics in the coming days.

Districts that have flexible instructional days have online plans preapproved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but since the program is relatively new, not all York County districts have them yet. 

Pennsylvania State Education Association spokeswoman Lauri Lebo said Friday that the flexible instructional days pilot program was just extended in the state this year.

So far, only Central York, Dallastown Area, Dover Area, Eastern York, Northeastern, Red Lion Area, South Western and Southern York County school districts, as well as York Academy Regional Charter School, have approved plans.

York City School District spokeswoman ShaiQuana Mitchell said though her district doesn't have flexible instructional plans, there are already activities and resources online for parents to work with students.

A bus awaits students at New Salem Elementary School at the end of the school day Friday, March 13, 2020. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania schools closed for 2 weeks starting Monday in an effort to contain the Cover-9 virus. Most York County Districts will be closed through March 30. Bill Kalina photo

Officials will be working on how students can best connect with teachers over the break in the next couple of days, she said.

West York board treasurer George Margetas, when reached Friday, said the closure news was still very new and that school administrators and board members were acting on information as it comes.

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“This all came about very suddenly,” he said, adding that the closure wasn’t even a blip on the radar when board members met recently.

Administrators discussed purchasing Chromebooks for online learning to get ahead of the situation, and members were in favor. That will likely be on the agenda Tuesday, he said.

Though online learning can be helpful, PSEA, the National Education Association and other education organizations are not in favor of it long-term, Lebo said.

"This should never replace face-to-face instruction," she said, and it can be difficult for students with limited internet access.

West York sent out a survey to find out which families have internet and computer access at home.

Comcast is offering discounts on its internet services — with some services free for two months for low-income residents in its service areas — and a number of Pennsylvania cyber charters sent a letter to the state Department of Education on Monday saying they would support public brick and mortars that needed help.

Wolf, in a statement released Friday afternoon, said the state Department of Education would be working with intermediate units and others to support them with continuity of learning plans.

Wolf said schools won't be penalized if they are unable to reach the 180 days of instruction required under state law. His administration, he said, would evaluate the decision at the end of the 10 days and decide whether to extend it.

But while that would be good, said York Suburban board President John Posenau, it could also be bad if students aren't getting enough instruction.

"You can’t cut 10, 20 days out of an education cycle and expect the same result," he said.

Before the governor's announcement Friday, governors in several other states, including Maryland and Ohio, had already ordered schools closed.

More than a dozen colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, including Penn State and York College, are shifting to online instruction and sending students home, while counties are declaring emergencies and advising people against attending large gatherings.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich demonstrates a method  to cover a cough during a press conference announcing a declaration of disaster emergency due to the COVID-19 virus Thursday, March 12, 2020. He also announced that York's Saint Patrick's Day parade was cancelled due to the Coronavirus threat. Bill Kalina photo

Teachers unions, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and other education organizations have supported decisions to close, but some school officials have said the move could be detrimental to families who depend on free and reduced lunch.

Philadelphia officials tried to keep schools open for that reason.

Wolf, a day prior, had taken steps to minimize the risk of large gatherings — ordering schools, day cares and other facilities closed in Montgomery County, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which was hit especially hard with the virus.

The state Department of Education received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorizing eligible schools to serve meals to low-income students in a setting such as a drive-thru or grab and go, where there would be less risk of exposure to the virus.

Dover officials noted the district is exploring the possibility of providing breakfast or lunch meals for students in need next week. York City will be providing breakfast and lunch to its students, but locations and times are still being determined.

"There’s still a bunch that we don’t know," said Posenau, York Suburban's board president. 

He's not sure if board meetings will be streamed online or how to make sure they can still meet Sunshine Act laws for public comment. Whether staff or teachers will report to school is still up in the air.

"The school district still has to run, bills have to be paid, so we’ll have to figure something out," Posenau said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report