School superintendents are desperate for clear guidance from the federal government on whether schools should close and for how long they should keep schools shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though many states have ordered all public schools to shut down, the dozen that haven’t have left district leaders in those states trying to sort through confusing messages about what to do.
Many were hoping to get that kind clarity on a call scheduled between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and district leaders Tuesday afternoon, but the call was canceled at the last minute.
On Monday, President Trump himself urged families to keep their children home from school “if possible,” one part of his administration’s latest guidance to halt the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That guidance calls for no more than 10 people to be gathered in the same room at the same time. But neither Trump, nor members of his federal task force, explicitly called for schools to close.
“How can you recommend no groups of 10 or more [people] and not recommend that schools be closed?” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
No Single Message on Shutting Down Schools
In guidance to school districts late last week, the CDC said that while there was a role for school closures in mitigating the spread of the disease in the community, modeling data also indicated that early and short-to-medium term closures, like two to four-week closures, did not necessarily alter the disease’s epidemiological curve. And while longer closures of eight to 20 weeks were more impactful, other efforts, such as handwashing and isolation, were more effective, according to the guidance.
“We understand that these are all recommendations, and they are trying to give a lot of latitude to localities to make those decisions,” said Domenech.
“But the problem that we run into is that we have the president saying you should not have any assembly of 10 or more people. How do you reconcile that with schools that are open and will open with thousands of kids—and definitely more than 10 in any classroom? It does not make sense. And that is the kind of confusion we are dealing with that needs clarification.”
The Tuesday call that many were counting on to clarify things was supposed to be between the district leaders and Kathleen Ethier, director in the division of adolescent and school health at the CDC.
As of March 17, 38 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had closed their school systems, meaning that nearly 39 million children are out of school, according to Education Week’s map of school closures.
While many of the early school closures were for two and three weeks, districts like New York City, the country’s largest school system with 1.1 million students, will be closed for about a month. And many are gearing up to possibly be out of school for the rest of the school year. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has suggested that students may not return to school this year.
The patchwork response is putting superintendents in an awkward position, Domenech said. They are looking for a uniform message from the administration, “not one group saying one thing and then someone else saying a different thing,” Domenech said.
Domenech suggested looking at the examples in other countries that have centrally ordered schools to close. But the CDC guidance to districts last week said that some countries that closed schools, like Hong Kong, did not have any more success in halting the spread of the disease than some that did not close schools.
“Educators are charged with and are responsible for the safety and welfare of not just their students but their staff,” Domenech said. “We are not talking here about people simply catching a cold. We are talking about people getting fatally ill, and dying. Nobody wants that to happen on their watch. They want clear guidance on what’s the best thing to do.”
Daniel Bittman, superintendent of the 14,000-student ISD 728 school district in Elk River Minnesota, said he hoped hearing directly from the CDC would give him more understanding of the virus and the experiences of the communities that have been impacted.
He was also looking for some guidance about what he should be saying to his community about how long the district’s schools may remain closed because of the pandemic and for examples of both successful and unsuccessful mitigation strategies.
“I do think that when there are opportunities to collaborate with superintendents across the country and medical professionals that’s extremely valuable,” Bittman said. “We should be looking for those opportunities on a regular basis in order to make sure that we are making the best decisions for our kids, staff, and communities. Our communities look to our districts to provide [information] and guidance in these situations. In our state, as well as most states throughout the country, oftentimes school districts are the largest employers, and we have the ability to reach the [greatest] number of people. When we lose those opportunities to partner, we are less effective.”
He wanted to hear about strategies that had been attempted in Washington state or New York, both hotspots, that were critical to managing the pandemic or supporting students.
Bittman hoped to gain as much from the CDC representative on the call as well as his peers around the country, particularly how they were supporting vulnerable students, including students with IEPs, 504 plans, and students in poverty.
The call “would have allowed me and my team to communicate with a broader spectrum,” he said.
He said his district will continue to use CDC resources, along with state educational and health guidance to make local decisions.
Elk River closed on Monday, opening on a limited basis on Tuesday to allow students and parents—in controlled settings—to pick up devices, personal effects, and medicine.
Bittman’s district closed not long after the CDC issued guidance recommending that some communities cancel events of more than 250 people. Even that would have been difficult to manage, he said. The high school cafeteria has 500 students at lunch time, and adding more lunch sessions would not have allowed them to comply, while practicing social distancing.
“We were not able to do that with 250, let alone 10,” Bittman said.
“We cannot function as a school system, in terms of only having 10 people at a time in an area,” he said. “We don’t have the space, we don’t have the staff, and we don’t have the capacity to do that.”
Image: A building-closure sign on the main office window of Robertson Elementary School in Yakima, Wash. All 15 Yakima County school districts cancelled classes this week because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Amanda Ray/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.