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March 13, 2020

All Philly, suburban schools to close for two weeks, Gov. Wolf orders

Decision causes riff with city officials who thought it was best to keep district open

Children's Health Coronavirus
Stock_Carroll - The School District of Philadelphia Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all state schools to close for two weeks to prevent spread of coronavirus. But Philly officials did not want to shut down the School District of Philadelphia.

All Pennsylvania K-12 schools must close for the next two weeks as state officials aim to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the closures at 3 p.m. Friday – one hour after Philadelphia officials reluctantly announced their intention to shutter the School District of Philadelphia through March 27.

As late as 1 p.m., city officials insisted they would not close schools because their operations were a critical component to city's ability to function. They noted that children appear less vulnerable to COVID-19.

But they ultimately decided to shutter them due to staffing shortages caused by suburban closures. 

"We're not closing because of the coronavirus," Superintendent William Hite said. "If in fact that was the reason, this decision would have been made a long time ago."

Their reasons wouldn't matter, as Wolf soon ordered all schools to close. He issued a statement noting that state officials recognize the "trying" impact coronavirus is having on communities. 

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.

As such, I am ordering that all schools in the commonwealth close for the next two weeks.

Be aware that no school district will be penalized if it fails to meet the 180 day or school hours requirements.

The Department of Education will work with intermediate units and other stakeholders to support school districts with any continuity of learning plans they may be pursuing.

There are currently 33 coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania, including three in Philadelphia. 

Pennsylvania received a federal waiver allowing eligible schools to serve meals to low-income students in "drive-through" or "grab and go" settings.

Philly officials are working to prepare recreation centers to provide meals and other activities for public school students. Managing Director Brian Abernathy compared it to the operation the city runs at rec centers during the summer. But instead of having months to plan, city officials now have 24 hours.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney acknowledged the closures could force single-parents to take off work, potentially placing them in a financial bind. 

"We know all these things," Kenney said. "That's why we wanted to keep the schools open. It was not our decision to close the schools. We were forced to do it because of staffing issues. ... This has never happened before and we're going to have to work our way through it, hour by hour."

Unlike other districts, Philly does not have the ability to send students home with technology. Instead, students will receive packets containing 10 days of work to be completed during the interruption. The exact mechanics or when and where these packets can be obtained have not been worked out yet.

Hite said schools are where many Philadelphia children get meals and shelter. It's also a place where they have activities to keep them safe.

Kenny and Managing Director Brian Abernathy fumed at a question suggesting earlier decisions to close the schools suburban counties created the perception that the suburban children are more important than those in Philadelphia.

"Our kids are safer staying in school," Kenney said.

"It was Gov. Wolf, Montgomery County and Delaware County that put us in this position," Abernathy said.

On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf closed all schools in Montgomery County, where there are 17 COVID-19 cases, tops in the state. That prompted created significant staffing shortages within the School District of Philadelphia. About 2,100 of the district's 18,000 employees live in Montgomery County.

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