Pennsylvania schools will remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic that has sickened thousands and caused hundreds of deaths statewide, under an order signed Thursday by the state education secretary.
The extended shutdown order affects more than 1.7 million students in public and private K-12 schools. It means children will spend the rest of the year learning remotely.
The order applies through the last day of the current academic year, a date that varies among districts because calendars are set by school boards.
“While this was a critical step for us to take to protect as many people as possible, it was not an easy decision to make,” Gov. Tom Wolf said.
He made the decision after consulting with Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and Dr. Rachel Levine, the state health secretary, Wolf’s spokeswoman said Thursday.
Annette Stevenson with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association welcomed the decision.
“I think it’ll bring great relief to the schools and the school leaders, because what it’ll do is allow them to formulate the long-term plan instead of having this interim plan in place,” Stevenson said.
Rivera told The Associated Press that decisions about how to handle graduations, which are made by local school districts, will depend on the extent of social distancing and stay-at-home direction in place as the graduation season nears.
Some districts are making plans for virtual commencement exercises, Rivera said.
Schools might be able to provide summer programming that starts on the day after their academic years end, although reopening buildings will depend on further action by the governor, Rivera said.
“Reopening will depend on the decision by the governor, based on the data and the research and the expectations set by the secretary of health,” Rivera said.
His order also waived several other provisions of law and regulations, including one related to teacher evaluations.
Wolf first closed schools March 13, initially for two weeks, as the virus continued its march across Pennsylvania. The Democratic governor tacked on another week before closing schools indefinitely, part of a series of progressively tougher measures meant to contain the outbreak and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
A state law passed last month mandates that schools provide an education during the pandemic, either by teaching new material or reviewing material that was already taught.
Rivera said about half of the school districts have sent his department plans that describe how they are continuing to educate children during the shutdown.
Wolf also has closed nonessential businesses and ordered all Pennsylvania residents to stay home.
In other coronavirus-related developments:
The Department of Health reported 1,989 new cases Thursday, bringing the statewide total to more than 18,000. There were 29 new deaths, for a statewide toll of 338.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
OVERWHELMING ALCOHOL DEMAND
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said Thursday it might increase the number of fulfillment centers to handle the tremendous demand for its new online sales program.
The state’s brick-and-mortar liquor stores were shut down March 17 over coronavirus concerns.
The online order system has been getting upwards of 2 million page hits a day since it launched last week, but the vast majority of would-be customers have been unable to place an order because of the program's lack of fulfillment capacity.
The program filled 684 orders on its first day and was up to about 1,800 orders per day this week, board spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell said. She said the relative few who successfully placed orders have been getting delivery within two days.
The existing fulfillment centers, staffed with employees and contract workers, are in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia suburbs and Wilkes-Barre.
Pennsylvania’s state-controlled liquor stores and liquor distribution did about $2.7 billion in sales last year. The board says that through the online system, it processed about 9,600 orders for 48,000 bottles worth nearly $900,000 over April 1-8.
Producers, breweries, wineries and distilleries, and privately owned beer distributorships are allowed to sell during the shutdown of nonessential businesses.
MARINER EAST PIPELINE
Construction on the massive Mariner East pipelines in southeastern Pennsylvania is in limbo.
The state Department of Community and Economic Development issued a waiver Monday to the pipeline owner, Texas-based Energy Transfer LP, allowing it to work despite Wolf’s order shutting down all non-life-sustaining business activity.
But the agency said it rescinded the waiver to review it after the pipeline was “inaccurately reviewed as an energy project.” The 350-mile, multibillion-dollar pipeline carries highly volatile natural gas liquids, much of it for export.
Energy Transfer said the waiver requests remained under review Thursday.
It is continuing construction-related activity that is allowed for safety and security at 15 sites associated with the Mariner East project, Energy Transfer said. Its pipeline systems are categorized as life-sustaining, and they continue to operate, the company said.
Energy Transfer has been heavily penalized in Pennsylvania for its work on Mariner East for spilling drilling fluids into waterways, using drilling methods that weren’t approved and other violations.
The Department of Corrections said Thursday it is now canceling inmate visits at state prisons indefinitely as a result of COVID-19.
The state’s prison visitation program has been shut down since March 13 as corrections officials sought to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. The shutdown was originally slated to last 14 days, then was extended until April 10.
“While we now have seven cases confined to one state prison, we continue our efforts to mitigate the virus’s impact on our system and protect our employees and inmates across the state,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.
Inmates are allowed video visits and are getting additional free phone calls and emails.