first day of school Hempfield

Students arrive for the first day of classes at Hempfield High School Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

Sixteen Lancaster County schools are adopting virtual learning the week after Thanksgiving to help prevent further spread of COVID-19. 

The moves, which impact more than 11,000 students from three school districts, come as COVID-19 cases continue to shatter records almost daily, leaving school officials with critical decisions regarding in-person learning as the number of quarantines among students and staff members surges across the county. 

With families expected to travel and gather for the holiday, despite warnings from health officials not to do so, some school officials have decided against an immediate return to in-person instruction after the break.  

Schools that will go remote the week students return from the Thanksgiving break include Ephrata High School, Hempfield School District schools and Manheim Central School District schools. 

In a letter to families Friday, Ephrata Area Superintendent said the next several weeks "may be the biggest challenge of the year so far."

"If we become less vigilant about these safety measures and allow an increase in COVID-19 cases within our schools, we may be forced to shift to online learning for all students," he said. 

As of Friday, more than 230 students and staff members at Ephrata High School have been quarantined due to COVID-19 cases — more than all other Ephrata schools combined — Troop said. 

According to a message posted on Hempfield's website, many individuals in the school community plan to travel over the holiday break and thus may be required to quarantine for 14 days due to the Pennsylvania Department of Health's new travel requirements. 

"As a result, there is strong potential that we will e unable to adequately staff our school buildings," the post reads. "In addition, due to the possibility of congregate settings over the break, there is a strong likelihood that we will see a significant rise in COVID cases that we have not seen in our schools to date."

As of Nov. 17, the district has reported 37 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the school year. 

In a letter to families Friday, Manheim Central Superintendent Peter J. Aiken mentioned similar reasons, particularly potential staff shortages, for the extended closure, which he called a "hard-reset."

Aiken, who said he is "and always will be unabashedly and unapologetically committed to in-person learning," said he remains "resolute we will return" to in-person on Dec. 7 — the expected return date for the other schools moving to remote learning after Thanksgiving. 

These schools are in addition to those that have already made changes to their post-Thanksgiving schedules. 

School District of Lancaster, for example, will shift to remote learning districtwide until Jan. 25, 2021. 

The Manheim Township school board last week rejected a proposal to shift all of its students online until Jan. 19. Instead, the district will follow a hybrid model including both in-person and online instruction for the week of Nov. 30 with a slow transition to fully in-person learning ending Jan. 25.