MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Pa. - "Open our schools!" That was the message during a peaceful protest this weekend in Montgomery County.
Parents, teachers and even students gathered outside the home of Dr. Val Arkoosh, chairwoman of the county commissioners.
On Friday, the county's Board of Health voted to order all schools to shift to virtual learning over two weeks around Thanksgiving, based on the Arkoosh's recommendation, because of rising COVID-19 numbers.
Organizers of the weekend portest outside Arkoosh's home said prior school shutdowns have been detrimental to their children's schoolwork and mental health.
"Virtual learning for special needs kids especially does not work," one parent at the event said. "It is not meeting their [Individualized Education Plans], it is not meeting the requirements that the state has to give to them."
"I feel that it's safe, they're social distancing, they're washing their hands, they're washing their stations, they're wearing their masks," said another parent.
"Children need to be in school, with their peers, with their teachers," a third parent said.
County officials are seeing the highest levels of coronavirus since the pandemic began, reporting more than 300 new cases on Friday.
Arkoosh joined "Good Day Philadelphia" on Monday morning to talk more about the "School Risk Reduction and Mitigation Order" and reaction to it.
She began by saying she supports the right of every American to peacefully protest, and she respects the parents who did so, saying she knows they are advocating for what they believe is best for their kids.
"The good news here is we agree on what we want," Arkoosh said. "I want children back in school, or to stay in school as much as they can and to remain in school, and so do these parents. Our disagreement is on how to get there."
The parents want to "soldier through the Thanksgiving holiday," the commissioners' chairwoman said.
"From where my team and I sit, we are using the data and the experience that we've gained over the last 37 weeks fighting this pandemic to make a different recommendation," Arkoosh said.
She pointed to an "exponential rise in cases and hospitalizations" in the county, saying they had 39 patients with COVID-19 in hospitals three weeks ago. Now, there are more than 180.
And she said they've seen case surges after Halloween, and there are college students returning home from areas with worse outbreaks, so they're concerned about what could be in case after Thanksgiving.
Schools have done a good job of keeping viral spread low. They have had a couple of incidences.
"But what I think everybody forgets is that we live in a community," she said. "So, not only are there students in the schools; there are teachers, there are bus drivers, there are custodians. And I'm hearing from our school superintendents that… many of them are on edge of what's called a functional closure because they have a number of people that have tested positive across different levels of their staff."
"There's no substitutes available. There just aren't. Every substitute teacher around has been hired," Arkoosh added.
Students, whether they're in public, independent or parochial schools, mix together on travel teams and social gatherings, she added.
So, they've been able to keep the virus suppressed since June," but that's not the case anymore," Arkoosh stated. "We've seen explosive growth in the county, and there's just – it's very likely that that is going to spill into the schools, particularly following the holiday."
FOX 29's Mike Jerrick, why not start today, and will it truly end in two weeks? Arkoosh answered it's not their intent to expand this. They hope to have everyone back in school on Dec. 7. And their concern is with exposure and spread over the holiday.
- Pennsylvania sets daily high in coronavirus cases with 5,551 new infections
- Montgomery County will shift to all-virtual learning for 2 weeks surrounding Thanksgiving
- Schools across U.S. abandon classes as virus surges
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