NORRISTOWN — Saying they should have the choice as to whether their children attend in-person or virtual schooling, some Montgomery County parents gathered to oppose an order by health officials that public and private schools move to an all-virtual learning mode for a two-week period around the Thanksgiving holiday to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Kaitlin Derstine, the mother of a Souderton Area School District student, speaking on behalf of the dozen parents who attended a small rally, said they want health officials to rescind the order and if they don’t, “You can have your two weeks, but we will concede no more.”

“You will be receiving from us emails, letters, calls, and rallies all petitioning for our children to have the right to step back to in-person learning in our schools. It is their right. Any parent can tell you, especially in the special needs community, that this doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the needs and the therapies that the school is to provide for our children,” Derstine said Tuesday outside the county Human Services Center in Norristown, which houses the office of the health department.

Derstine and others claimed virtual learning leads to children feeling isolated and that the potential for depression, anxiety and suicide has been ignored by elected officials making the decisions about virtual or in-person learning.

Not only are children fighting with isolation and mental health issues there are children with learning disabilities who rely heavily on schools for critical services.

“Every day that you take away the therapies from a special needs child you are diminishing their chances of future success and those are days in their developmental stories that you can’t get back,” said Derstine, of Telford. “Every day that a specials needs child goes without their in-person therapies, it’s an irreparable harm, damage on their lives and it’s unacceptable.”

Rally attendees held signs blaring, “THIS IS NOT COOL KEEP OUR KIDS IN SCHOOL” and “Keep Schools Open.” Some passing motorists showed their support by honking their vehicles’ horns.

Jamie Miller, of Blue Bell, the mother of an 11-year-old boy who attends Wissahickon Middle School, said she fears the two-week pause in in-school learning will be extended and then harm the ability of students to learn.

“I feel like each district needs to make their own plan for each individual school,” said Miller, emphasizing she disagrees with the county making a blanket decision to force all schools to go virtual.

Miller and the other parents, who are members of a Facebook group they call Parents For In-Person Education, plan to hold additional rallies outside the health department and outside the home of county Commissioners’ Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, who supported the health department’s order.

“We’re going to keep doing this until our voices are heard,” Miller vowed.

Last Friday, the five members of the county Board of Health voted unanimously for a two-week pause, from Nov. 23 to Dec. 6, on in-person instruction and extracurricular activities, including sports and sports practices, at all public and private schools. The requirement also includes virtual education for special education.

Schools can resume in-person instruction on Dec. 7, under the approved Montgomery County School COVID-19 Risk Reduction and Mitigation Order.

Health officials fear that if people go directly back to school after the Thanksgiving holiday, after large social gatherings, the chances are that there will be people who are infectious, asymptomatic, and could trigger a substantial COVID-19 outbreak within schools.

The implementation of virtual schools during the period of peak contagion is designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and is essential to ensure the protection of children, teachers, school staff and others who are impacted, as well as those in the general community, health officials said.

The decision to go all-virtual for two weeks also came on the advice of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab.

The overall 14-day COVID-19 positivity rate for the county, as of Nov. 7, was 5.45% which was an increase from the 4.39% positivity rate for the 14-day period ending Oct. 30.

Kristi Kafel, of Maple Glen, whose two children attend Mary, Mother of the Redeemer Catholic School in North Wales, said she attended the rally to appeal to the health department to refrain from extending the two-week virtual learning period.

“I feel there’s been a complete lack of trust in what they say. I don’t want my kids in virtual school indefinitely,” Kafel said. “I just don’t feel that my kids learn in the proper way virtual, sitting in front of a computer. You’re not getting the same instruction that you get in-person. You’re not getting any of the social interaction. It’s not ideal.”

For several weeks, the Pennsylvania Department of Health listed the county has having “substantial transmission and concerning percent-positivity.”

State health officials have recommended schools switch to a virtual model if a county is determined to have a “substantial” level of community transmission for two consecutive weeks. However, the state leaves the ultimate decision to local officials.

The state’s largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, also urged school districts in counties with substantial transmission to move to fully virtual classes.

“I can appreciate that but I do feel strongly that it should be based on the individual schools and the individual circumstances. Montgomery County is a huge county and to give a blanket mandate just seems wrong,” Kafel said. “Our school worked tirelessly to improve our environment and put policies in place and we’ve had not one case.

“Our parents have been super attentive to keeping their kids home if they’re not feeling well…and it’s that due diligence that’s kept our community safe and I feel that those schools shouldn’t be punished for that. Each school, each school district should have the ability to make the decision that’s best for them,” Kafel added.

comments powered by Disqus