NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Health officials in Pennsylvania's third-most populous county ordered schools Friday to temporarily halt classroom instruction in what they said was an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The Montgomery County Board of Health mandated that all public and private K-12 schools in the suburban Philadelphia county offer virtual instruction for two weeks beginning Nov. 23.
The unanimous vote came one day after dozens of parents and school administrators expressed vehement opposition to the plan, calling online education insufficient and accusing the health board of failing to present any evidence linking schools to the wider outbreak.
Board members said Friday that rising cases counts and hospitalizations, along with the potential that children will contract the virus over Thanksgiving break and then spread it in schools, required them to act.
"I completely understand their concerns," said board member Dr. Francis Jeyaraj, a pediatrician. "But these are difficult times for all of us. It's a total community effort."
Board member Barbara Wadsworth, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Main Line Health, said her four hospitals were treating 33 patients for COVID-19 four weeks ago, with that number rising to 106 now.
She said virtual instruction is "difficult and 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."
The decision left some parents furious.
"It was like a moment of being speechless and wanting to scream at the top of my lungs at the same time," said Katrina Turtu of Telford.
After hearing the board's decision to close all schools for two weeks, Turtu says she was left feeling frustrated and deflated. Her daughter, Annabella is on the autism spectrum and has severe anxiety.
"Within a month of her being out of school she was expressing suicidal tendencies. At seven years old her words were she 'can't handle this anymore,' she 'doesn't want to live.' I wanted these people yesterday, and those board members, to think about that for a second," says Turtu.
Parents worry that this two-week time period may be extended and wonder why other businesses aren't being shuttered first.
"I don't want anything to shut down quite honestly, but I know that schools are not the first thing to shut down," said Erin Stein or Fort Washington.
"That model doesn't work. It's gotta be the flip-flop now," said Lisa Burns of Fort Washington.
The board made one small concession, dropping language that made the shutdown more open-ended.
Across Pennsylvania, some schools, including in the state's largest school district in Philadelphia, have yet to return to classroom instruction, while others started the academic year virtually and then invited students to return to class at least part time.
Schools that are open for in-person instruction have responded to small clusters of virus cases by shutting down for several days at a time.
Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide schools closure after the pandemic arrived in Pennsylvania last March.
For this academic year, the Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends that schools go virtual if the surrounding county is determined to have a "substantial" level of community spread for two consecutive weeks - the status in 23 counties right now - but leaves the ultimate decision to local authorities.
The decision comes the same day Pennsylvania reported its highest daily increase of positive COVID-19 cases.
On Friday, the Department of Health confirmed 5,531 additional positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 254,387.
There were 30 new deaths reported for a total of 9,224 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
The number of tests administered within the last 7 days between November 6 and November 12 is 332,640 with 28,290 positive cases. There were 54,399 test results reported to the department through 10 p.m., November 12. This is a record high number of PCR test results reported to the department.
There are 7,612 individuals who have a positive viral antigen test and are considered probable cases and 645 individuals who have a positive serology test and either COVID-19 symptoms or a high-risk exposure.
There are 2,523,984 individuals who have tested negative to date. Of those who have tested positive to date the age breakdown is as follows:
Approximately 1% are ages 0-4;
Approximately 2% are ages 5-12;
Approximately 5% are ages 13-18;
Approximately 13% are ages 19-24;
Approximately 36% are ages 25-49;
Approximately 21% are ages 50-64; and
Approximately 20% are ages 65 or older.
There are 2,196 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19. Of that number, 448 patients are in the intensive care unit with COVID-19. Most of the patients hospitalized are ages 65 or older, and most of the deaths have occurred in patients 65 or older.
The department has seen significant increases in the number of COVID-19 cases among younger age groups, particularly 19 to 24-year-olds.
In nursing and personal care homes, there are 28,990 resident cases of COVID-19, and 6,028 cases among employees, for a total of 35,018 at 1,144 distinct facilities in 63 counties. Out of the total deaths, 6,052 have occurred in residents from nursing or personal care facilities.
Approximately 13,315 of our total cases are among health care workers.
Officials in Montgomery and Delaware counties are sounding the alarm on COVID-19, warning that the surge is putting a strain on the hospital system.
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