Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered all public schools in the state to close for the next two weeks as the state seeks to curb an outbreak of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19.
The order — which came as confirmed cases in the state reached 41, none of which are in Lancaster County — applies to the state's 500 public school districts, plus brick-and-mortar charter schools. Cyber charter schools will be considered on a case-by-case basis, Wolf said, and private schools are encouraged to close.
It capped off a frenetic Friday afternoon that began with Lancaster County school districts initially announcing they would shut down for a week starting Monday. Schools are now expected to reopen March 30.
One-by-one starting around 2 p.m. Friday, school districts began announcing plans to close school and cancel activities. A statement posted 45 minutes later by School District of Lancaster confirmed 16 county school districts made the choice.
Shortly after SDL's announcement, Wolf made his.
"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," Wolf said. "As such, I am ordering that all schools in the commonwealth close for the next two weeks."
Announcing the news
It started with Manheim Central.
"The decision to close school is not one that the District takes lightly and we recognize the potential hardships associated with this decision,” district Superintendent Peter J. Aiken wrote in a letter to families. “Nevertheless, the threat of COVID-19 warrants such decisive action for the overall health and well-being of our community.”
"We understand the challenges this creates for some children and families," the district's online statement read. "We will continue to provide information and updates throughout the week."
Penn Manor, Ephrata Area and others, including School District of Lancaster, began making similar announcements.
"We made this decision in collaboration with our neighboring school districts to allow students and families to observe recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wolf Administration to avoid large gatherings (social distancing) that facilitate the spread of illness," SDL's statement read.
Like other districts, SDL said it's working through logistics such as meal distribution, possible makeup days, child care and staff expectations.
Wolf said schools won't be penalized if they don't fulfill the 180-school day requirement. During a press conference late Friday afternoon, state education secretary Pedro A. Rivera, said the department of education is exploring a number of tools that can be used to maintain educational continuity. He said there are some “cyber options” but acknowledged some schools districts’ students may not have access to full connectivity.
“It’s not like snow days,” Wolf added during the press conference, in response to a question about the whether the two-week period will be held against schools’ 180-day school requirement.
Rivera also said his department would seek a waiver of standardized testing requirements from the U.S. Department of Education.
Regarding meals, the state Department of Education said it received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow eligible schools to serve meals to low-income students in a "non-congregate setting, such as a drive-through or grab and go."
It will undoubtedly take a community effort.
"This is a time where we all have to be working together to do our part in the community," Jennifer Thompson said.
Thompson is the executive director of Power Packs Project, a nonprofit that provides meals to about 1,450 families in 11 Lancaster County school districts.
Thompson said Power Packs plans to communicate with families they serve regarding where and when to pick up meals. She said if people want to offer their support, they can donate online.
For more information, it's best to contact the local school district. Families can also call 211 for referrals to local food pantries, soup kitchens and other food programs.
Reporting from The Associated Press contributed to this story.