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School & District Management

Millions Will Be Out of School for Weeks Due to Coronavirus. It May Not Be Long Enough

By Evie Blad — March 13, 2020 | Updated: March 13, 2020 | Corrected: March 14, 2020 7 min read
Maria Ochoa and Selvin Jimenez, 10, pick up some food at a distribution point in New Rochelle, N.Y., Thursday, March 12. State officials set up a coronavirus “containment area” in the New York City suburb.

Corrected: This article has been updated to correct the number of students that have been been impacted so far by school closures.

As an unprecedented wave of schools were ordered to shut down in an attempt to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that many of the planned closures may not be long enough to effectively drive down transmission rates.

And some countries that have closed schools have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not, the CDC said.

More than 21 million U.S. students have been affected so far by school closures related to the pandemic, which prompted President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency Friday.

Also as of Friday, leaders in 16 states had ordered all schools to close, joined by school systems in the District of Columbia, Miami-Dade, San Diego, and Los Angeles, the second-largest school system in the country.

“We’re in a bit of a free fall,” said Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “Trying to figure out how to serve kids, keep them safe, and do right by our communities is the triple challenge.”

School leaders have been weighing big questions about interrupted learning, a lack of resources for online coursework, and the effects on students with disabilities and low-income families as they wrestled with whether to close. But in several states, governors made the decision for them.

As concern about the illness grew, domino after domino fell this week, leading to the largest mass closure of American schools in recent memory, overshadowing past shutdowns forced by hurricanes, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and even the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which was blunted by early, long-term closures.

But will this historic round of mass closures be effective?

The CDC guidance released Friday said that, in areas with “substantial community spread” of the coronavirus, closures need to last a minimum of four to eight weeks to serve as a “larger community mitigation strategy.” That’s much longer than many current closures, which are scheduled to last two or three weeks.

That may mean some state and district leaders will choose to extend their shutdowns or to reevaluate as scheduled school reopenings approach as early as the beginning of April. Many states and districts have already extended their scheduled spring breaks to help blunt the duration of time that students would be out.

As person-to-person transmission of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, grew in the United States in recent weeks, superintendents have pressed for federal direction on when to close schools and for how long. The U.S. Department of Education had deferred to previous guidance from the CDC, which recently had urged schools to “minimize disruption” caused by closures and to consider effects like a lack of child care for parents don’t have paid leave and can’t work from home and students who rely on free and discounted school meals.

“Our members were waiting for this very anxiously, especially in places where the governors have not declared schools closed,” Pudelski said of Friday’s new guidance. “I think it will be helpful for them going forward.”

Pros and Cons of Closing Schools

The CDC document listed pros and cons of a range of closure lengths.

Closing schools for a week or less could be useful for cleaning and tracing possible spread if a single case is found in a school community, it says. Short-term closures of around two weeks may be easier for schools to handle, but they could cause disruptions for families and student services, and they could lead to more transmission of illness to especially vulnerable older populations if children of working parents are put in the care of grandparents or other elders.

In past outbreaks of respiratory illness where children were more affected, longer closures were most effective at reducing community transmission, the CDC said. But, if such closures last too long, that could lead students to congregate outside of school, making shutdowns less effective, the guidance said.

“While we have data that can contribute to decisions about when to dismiss schools, there is almost no available data on the right time to restart schools,” it says. “We would advise to plan for a length of time and then evaluate based on continued community spread.”

Most cases of COVID-19 have been in adults, and public health officials have said children appear less likely to become ill. That has caused some to advocate against school closures.

As of Friday afternoon, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, resisted calls from the teachers’ union to close all schools in the nation’s largest school system. It’s “unrealistic” to expect that more than 1 million students will remain at home and not interact with their peers if schools are closed, he told WNYC.

Groups like the Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for low-income students and school funding, urged caution in any broad school closure decision.

“Failing to take preemptive actions will harm the homeless, the poor, the working poor, and children in poverty the most, and cause lasting harm that will far outlast the epicenter of the crisis we are in today,” the group said in a statement Friday. “Looking after the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities is the only way we will be able to overcome this crisis.”

But leaders who chose to close schools cited concerns about children carrying the virus to more vulnerable populations outside of their buildings. Other countries have even announced national closures. Some districts have also raised concerns for their older teachers and staff members.

“Our [school] systems need to be prepared for a potentially longer closure in the near term, and [without a vaccine] we have to be prepared that this is back in the fall or still with us in the fall,” Washington schools chief Chris Reykdal said in comments reported by the Seattle Times.

He joined Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday in announcing closures of schools in three large counties in the state, which has seen more deaths than any other state from COVID-19. On Friday, Inslee ordered statewide school closures for at least six weeks, one of the longest large-scale closures announced so far.

Steps to Take

In its new guidance, the CDC urges communication with families and consideration of health-care workers whose ability to care for patients may be hindered if their children are out of school.

“Clear rationale, decisionmaking and communication with all stakeholders is extremely important,” it says. “Families need to know who is making decisions, what those decisions are, and when school-based mitigation efforts are planned to start and end.”

The U.S. Department of Education addressed some of those concerns Thursday when it suggested it will consider limited waivers from some testing and accountability requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law, in areas that are highly affected by COVID-19. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has committed to providing waivers to some school meal requirements so that districts can offer “grab-and-go” lunches in communities where schools are closed.

Still, it may be difficult for school leaders to commit to longer closures.

If month-long closures spread nationwide, it could cost the U.S. economy some $50 billion, or nearly a quarter of 1 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product, according to a new analysis by Joshua Epstein, epidemiology professor at New York University school of global public health, and Ross Hammond, associate professor of public health and social policy at Washington University and the Brookings Institution.

And, in a fractured media landscape, families around the country have received vastly differing messages about the severity of the coronavirus and its impact on their day-to-day lives. That means that, while some parents may be demanding closures, others may not see the point in them.

There’s even a partisan divide: Among respondents to a Quinnipiac University poll released March 9, Democrats were more likely to say they were concerned about the coronavirus than Republicans.

Despite the challenges and concerns, some groups have voiced support for broad closures.

After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, ordered all of the state’s schools closed Friday, a coalition of education groups released a statement in support of the decision. They included teachers’ and administrators’ unions, and associations representing school boards and school business officials.

“The spread of coronavirus across Pennsylvania, the United States, and across the globe is unprecedented and has required difficult decisions to be made,” the statement said. “The immense challenges presented by this virus have forced difficult and necessary decisions to ensure the health and welfare of the commonwealth’s citizens.”

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