Open or Close? Schools Grapple with Coronavirus Decisions

Students leave New Rochelle High School after classes are dismissed, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in New York. State officials are shuttering schools and houses of worship for two weeks in part of the New York City suburb New Rochelle.

Students leave New Rochelle High School after classes are dismissed, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in New York. State officials are shuttering schools and houses of worship for two weeks in part of the New York City suburb New Rochelle. AP Photo/John Minchillo


Connecting state and local government leaders

While some school districts may have the resources to hold virtual classes during closures, others worry about meeting students’ basic needs if classes are cancelled.

In Washington state, which as of Tuesday led the country in coronavirus cases, schools in one district outside Seattle are closed for two weeks in response to the outbreak. Elsewhere in the United States, schools are announcing one-day cancellations for deep cleanings after learning of students or staff who’ve come in contact with Covid-19 patients.

When it comes to limiting the spread of the new coronavirus, government leaders are beginning to consider bans on large gatherings and otherwise encourage people to limit their interactions with others.

But when it comes to cancelling classes at neighborhood schools and keeping children home, officials so far say it’s a tougher call. They certainly need to weigh health concerns—and some experts have begun to suggest schools close to slow spread of the virus. But officials are also dealing with the impact such closures will have on working parents, the resources needed to hold online classes, and how to provide food to low-income students who rely on school lunches.

To help in the decision making, some states have begun issuing guidance to determine when and if school districts should cancel classes or other school activities. In preparation for long-term closures, some school districts are assessing their ability to conduct online lessons.

As of Tuesday, 1,073 schools—out of more than 130,000 public and private schools in the country—have been closed or are scheduled to close, affecting upwards of 776,200 students, according to the latest data compiled by Education Week

The Northshore School District in King County, Washington, which on March 5 closed its 33 schools for two weeks, held its first day of virtual classes on Monday.

Superintendent Michelle Reid told a local TV news station that the first day of classes went reasonably well for the district’s 23,000 students. But the decision to turn to online learning highlights the digital divide between affluent and low-income families. Teachers and staff members received instructions last week on conducting remote classes and the district made arrangements to loan electronic devices and internet hot spots to students who needed them. 

Elsewhere, in rural or low-income communities that may not have such robust access to fast internet or home computers, the digital divide is a real consideration.

“If we shut down for a week or two weeks, and some of the kids can do it, but some can’t, what do you do?” Edward Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, told the Associated Press. “There are some places that don’t even have phone service.”

In New York City, where many students from low-income families rely on public schools for basic social services, including access to meals and medical care, officials have said mass closures are a last resort.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide policy on Monday requiring any school where students or teachers tested positive for coronavirus to close for 24 hours. The closure would give officials time to “do an assessment of the situation and the facts, and then make a determination going forward given the facts in the particular school district,” Cuomo said.

One exception, however, are schools within a one-mile zone of New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City. Because of the large number of cases within that area, Cuomo ordered that schools and other places associated with large gatherings within that area will close for two weeks starting on Thursday.

Guidance released by the California Department of Public Health lays out steps that schools should take under various scenarios to limit the spread of coronavirus. The department does not advise school officials to consider school closures as an option unless a student or staff member tests positive.

In Seattle, where officials are dealing with one of the largest clusters of coronavirus cases, Patty Hayes, the director of public health, told the City Council on Monday that she is not recommending school closures at this time unless there is a confirmed case at the school. And then she said her office can work with schools to determine how long they should remain closed.

Hayes, who noted children have largely not had serious cases of Covid-19, said that past disease outbreaks showed that closing schools can have limited efficacy because children will “congregate anyway.”

And then there are workforce considerations. “Particularly we are concerned that many children whose parents are health care workers, we need them to be at work,” Hayes said.

Those at greatest risk of serious illness from coronavirus are adults over the age of 60 and people with compromised immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Initial reports have shown that children infected with the virus have had more mild symptoms than adults. In China, where the respiratory illness originated, there were no deaths reported of children under the age of 10, but scientists are still figuring out what role kids play in spreading the disease. 

With no cure or vaccine available for coronavirus, some public health professionals have begun to recommend that state and local governments take a more aggressive approach to encourage “social distancing.” And some have argued in favor of school closings.

Howard Markey, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, wrote in the New York Times that such closures were believed to be particularly effective at reducing the number of deaths during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and physician at Yale University, told Science magazine that proactive closures before a case is detected in a community could have a big impact on reducing spread of the disease because both kids and parents are kept at home and aren't interacting at school.

Christakis also noted there could be "intermediate steps" that schools could take. "For example, why not allow families who want to keep their kids home keep them home? Why not cancel all activities, like sporting events and musical performances that have large groups present?" he said in the interview.

Many colleges and universities are heeding those warnings, cancelling in-person classes and preparing students for virtual coursework. Hofstra University, in New York, cancelled all classes this week. In a letter to Harvard University students, President Larry Bacow on Tuesday said all graduate and undergraduate classes would transition to online courses by March 23. He asked students not to return to campus after spring break.

“The decision to move to virtual instruction was not made lightly,” Bacow wrote. “The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity with each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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