COVID-19 in Pa.: Wolf indefinitely closes schools; extends stay at home order to four more counties

Gov. Tom Wolf briefs journalists on Monday, 3/3/20 on the state's latest efforts to fight COVID-19 (screen capture)

(*This developing story will be updated)

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday ordered Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts closed indefinitely as the state works to contain the growth of COVID-19. And he extended a stay at home order to four more Pennsylvania counties.

At a mid-afternoon briefing, the Democratic governor announced that residents in Carbon, Cumberland, Dauphin and Schuylkill counties were now required to stay in their homes and not leave but for a limited series of exceptions. In all, 26 of 67 Pennsylvania counties are now covered by such an order.

They are: Allegheny, Beaver, Berks, Bucks, Butler, Carbon, Centre, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Schuylkill, Washington, Wayne, Westmoreland and York counties.

The new order takes effect at 8 p.m. on Monday, March 30 and lasts, for all counties, until April 30, matching an extension announced by the Trump administration on Sunday. All 500 Pennsylvania school districts, along with all non-essential businesses were ordered closed until further notice.

Wolf acknowledged the hardship that such an order will cause, but “right now, it isn’t safe.”

“We miss being with friends and family members,” he said. ” … We’re getting into warmer weather and spring fever will set in … but stay in we must. This virus is really sneaky. We must must all act as if we do have it. We must self-isolate. We must eliminate the further spread of this disease by staying home.”

As of midday Monday, the state had confirmed 4,087 cases of COVID-19 in 59 of 67 Pennsylvania counties, with 48 fatalities.

Wolf announced his first school closing order on March 13, with the closing to last for two weeks. The order was later extended to April 6. Last week, lawmakers in the state House and Senate approved, and Wolf signed, legislation easing instructional requirements for students.

On Monday, Wolf said his administration was working on a plan “to make sure that we have a way to provide an education for the kids who are not getting one for the next two months,” and said the hope was “to have it in place for the next few days. By the time we start next week, will have an alternative to the schools not there now.”

Wolf later acknowledged that it will be easier for the state to provide laptops to students who might need to learn online, but it will not be as easy to provide them with broadband access they need for that to happen.

Last week, officials in the Philadelphia School District announced they planned to spend $11 million to purchase ChromeBooks for students who do have access to a computer. A Comcast executive said he planned to cover $5 million of that cost. And the cable giant is offering free access to its xFinity wiFi service in the city, the Philadelphia Tribune reported.

Speaking to journalists last week, state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said his agency has strongly urged all schools in the Commonwealth to offer remote instruction. Rivera said state officials will use “the power of the pulpit” to influence those that don’t.

John L. Micek
John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. He's been covering Pennsylvania politics for more than 20 years and most recently served as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Micek's commentary is syndicated to more than 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. And he's a regular contributor to a host of broadcast outlets in Pennsylvania and abroad.