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Governor Orders Pennsylvania Schools Closed For 2 Weeks

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Katie Blackley
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90.5 WESA

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday ordered the closure of all schools in Pennsylvania for two weeks, as the state takes sweeping measures aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus.

The order affecting more than 1.7 million school children, in public and private K-12 schools, came as confirmed cases in the state leaped to 33 from 22, including the first patient under 18.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Wolf said schools won't be penalized if they are unable to reach the 180 days of instruction required under state law. His administration, he said, would evaluate the decision at the end of the 10 days and decide whether to extend it.

Governors in several other states, including Maryland and Ohio, had already ordered schools closed.

Following the order, teachers' unions, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and other schools organizations released a joint statement in support of the move.

Some school officials in Pennsylvania, including in Philadelphia, had warned that children who depend on free or reduced-price meals in school might go hungry. Philadelphia officials had sought to keep their schools open, saying many children have just a single parent who might not be able to work if the child is home.

Wolf, however, said the state had received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow eligible schools to serve meals to students in a “non-congregate setting,” such as a drive-through or a grab-and-go.

The move comes a day after Wolf ordered all schools, day cares and other facilities closed in hard-hit Montgomery County, in the Philadelphia suburbs and home to more than 800,000 people, and asked residents to avoid all non-essential travel. He also discouraged large gatherings of people statewide and canceled prison visits.

Already, more than a dozen colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, including Penn State, are shifting to online instruction and sending students home, while counties are declaring emergencies and advising people against attending large gatherings.

Before Wolf acted, a wave of school closings across Pennsylvania had been growing as Friday wore on, with some school officials grumbling that Wolf's administration wasn't offering more guidance.

A look at the latest developments in Pennsylvania:

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CASES

All the state's 33 cases of positive tests are in eastern Pennsylvania. Hardest hit is Montgomery County, with 17 cases, with more new cases in Philadelphia and Delaware County reported Friday, and a child in Monroe County.

All but one of the confirmed cases thus far have been traced back to contact with the new coronavirus in another state or country. Most people are at home in isolation, officials say; a few are hospitalized.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The vast majority of people recover.

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY

Wolf has said his approach to Montgomery County will be continually evaluated. It also applies to higher education, day cares, adult care centers and private schools.

His administration said Wolf was acting under disaster emergency law that allows him to control movement and occupancy in a disaster area, but it could not say when a governor had last used that power. It also cited the Department of Health's legal responsibility to “determine and employ the most efficient and practical means for the prevention and suppression of disease.”

Gas stations, grocery stores, government facilities, utilities and mass transit should continue to operate, he said, while no-visitor policies are to be adopted by prisons and nursing homes.

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CANCELLATIONS

Public programs, events and training in Pennsylvania's state parks and forests were canceled Friday through April, although parks and forests will remain open except for three parks in the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomery County. The event cancellations include special events such as races and festivals.

Visitors can still camp overnight or stay in cabins and cottages, and fishing is still allowed. In Montgomery County, three state parks will be closed to visitors for at least two weeks: Evansburg, Fort Washington and Norristown Farm Park.

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PRISON VISITS

The state Department of Corrections has canceled all inmate visits for two weeks and said it will step up screening of employees and vendors, including taking temperatures and asking a series of questions.

Anyone with flu-like symptoms or a temperature of 100.4 degrees or more will not be allowed in a state prison, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a statement.

There are no confirmed cases in state prisons.

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LAWMAKERS

Pennsylvania state lawmakers plan to return to voting session on Monday with COVID-19 response at the top of their agenda.

A House majority Republican spokesman said Friday coronavirus-related legislation could include health-care access, insurance, health emergency declarations, workplace protection and funding.

Lawmakers and the governor's office plan to meet over the weekend to sort out details. The House also plans to swear in Roni Green, a Democrat recently elected to fill a vacant seat in Philadelphia.

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Associated Press reporters Maryclaire Dale and Michael Rubinkam contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.