Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

What’s at Stake When Schools Close for the Coronavirus? A Bioethicist Weighs In

By Ruth R. Faden — March 05, 2020 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

School closings have become reality in response to the current coronavirus epidemic in the United States. Numerous schools, including more than a dozen in Washington state, Oregon, New York, California, and Rhode Island are now temporarily shut as of this writing. As the epidemic progresses in this country, it is likely that many more American children will join the hundreds of millions around the world in nations including China, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Mongolia, Italy, and France who are currently out of school. These closings may not be of short duration; some experts project that for school shutdowns to have a real impact on an epidemic, schools need to be closed for as long as eight weeks.

Although Vice President Mike Pence has already signaled that the White House will support school closings, those decisions will be made at the local and state levels. School districts are being urged to review and revise their pandemic-preparedness plans, including continuity of instruction in the event of closures. And parents are being urged to prepare for the possibility that their children may be home for protracted periods of time.

It is important that school districts and parents of preschool and school-age children heed this advice. It is also important, however, to recognize that parents are not equally positioned to protect their children on their own. As in all public-health emergencies, poor children and poor families will suffer the most. An ethically defensible policy of government school shutdowns needs not only to meet the bar of public health necessity, it must also include active measures to mitigate the disproportionate burden that will fall on our most vulnerable children.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

Consider the critical role that schools play in meeting the nutritional needs of poor children. About 15 percent of all American children are from food-insecure families—more than 11 million children. Schools provide free or discounted lunches to more than 20 million children and free breakfast to more than 12 million. In addition, more than a million children participate in After School Supper Programs.

A recent New York Times article has drawn attention to the serious economic impact of school closings on the vendors who supply school meals. But for the millions of children for whom school meals can make the difference between hunger and health, the impact could be even more devastating. A study of schools in western Kentucky that closed during a 2013 influenza outbreak found that one-quarter of families reported difficulty caused by lack of access to school lunch.

Schools and community organizations should collaborate now to identify and plan for alternative emergency food-assistance strategies, such as providing prepacked lunches that could be picked up at food banks, churches, or other area nonprofits.

Parents are not equally positioned to protect their children on their own."

What will happen to children who are homeless or who find respite in school from emotionally or physically threatening home environments? Governments need to open emergency housing and, for younger children, provide emergency child-care options that are appropriate for an outbreak context.

For older kids, guidelines need to be established to mitigate recongregation outside of school, whether at the mall or each other’s homes. Data about the impact of schools closings on adolescents are limited, but one study from the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone suggests that teenage pregnancies increased by 65 percent as a result of school closures.

If home-based instruction is implemented during an extended shutdown, plans need to account for those children who do not have reliable internet access or adult supervision. Families with more than one child may not have more than one device, and there is the collateral consequence of extended screen time.

Finally, steps should be taken to minimize the likelihood that low-income parents feel compelled to leave their young children home alone because they fear losing their jobs or cannot sustain even a temporary loss of income.

Although some politicians are advocating to extend sick-leave and job-security provisions to employees out of work for the virus, it is important that any such provisions apply to parents who are out of work because they must stay home to care for their children because of school closures. And what is to be done for the poorest parents who will be hit the hardest? More than two-thirds of workers who earn wages in the bottom 10 percent have no paid sick leave.

Schools do more than educate our poorest children. If they close for any significant amount of time and continuity-of-instruction plans are not supplemented with adequate continuity-of-welfare plans, the risks that these children will face may be greater than the risks they face from COVID-19. It would be profoundly unfair to protect the rest of us on the backs of our most vulnerable.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as The High Cost of a Coronavirus School Closure

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Where Does Social-Emotional Learning Go Next?
Teachers, students, and parents all want more social-emotional and service learning in schools. The pandemic has only heightened that need.
John M. Bridgeland & Francie Richards
4 min read
Friendly group of people stand and support each other.
IULIIA/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being What the Research Says Masks, Tracking, Desk Shields: How Much Do School Measures Reduce Families' COVID-19 Risk?
A new study pinpoints the most effective mitigation measures and suggests that the more of them schools use, the better.
5 min read
Jennifer Becker, right, Science Teacher at the Sinaloa Middle School, talks to one of her students in Novato, Calif. on March 2, 2021.
Jennifer Becker, right, a teacher at Sinaloa Middle School, wears a mask to stem the spread of coronavirus as she talks with a student earlier this year in Novato, Calif.
Haven Daily/AP
Student Well-Being Opinion The One Thing Teachers Do That Hurts Student Motivation
When adults take over on a challenging task, kids are more likely to quit sooner on the next one. Here’s what to do instead.
Julia Leonard
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Whitepaper
The Complete Guide to SEL
This guide illustrates why SEL is more important now and what you should look for when implementing a social-emotional curriculum.
Content provided by Navigate360