School & District Management

To Close or Not? How Superintendents Decide to Shut Down Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 12, 2020 | Updated: March 13, 2020 8 min read
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With COVID-19 continuing to spread throughout the United States, thousands of superintendents are suddenly becoming fluent in a peculiar new idiom: that of “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” of infection to prevent overwhelming medical facilities. Increasingly, they’re faced with the tough decision of if and when they should decide to close their schools to stave off transmission.

So far, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, and Oregon have moved to close all their schools. In other states, absent a direct order from public-health agencies, the decision of whether, and how long, to shutter schools technically falls to superintendents. Many interviewed by Education Week say, though, that they coordinate with other health and safety agencies to gauge impact on their communities at large before making the call.

“At the end of the day, we’d never make that decision unilaterally,” said Bondy Shay Gibson, the superintendent of the Jefferson County district in West Virginia’s panhandle. “We’d work with the health department, the sheriff’s department, the county homeland-security department, and say to them: Tell us what you think—is there anything we’re not considering?”

Still, as they work through the possible scenarios for doing so, the superintendents say they’re balancing a host of competing considerations, as well as trying to make contingency plans if they do have to close.

They’re worried about who will supervise children in families in which both parents must work or about children going hungry without school assistance. They’re facing logistical challenges about how to keep payroll running and prepare learning plans for students. External pressures are present, too, with frightened parents in some communities urging schools to close.

All that makes for a thorny decision tree.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

Take the Douglas district in Box Elder, S.D. Its context, like many districts’, poses a unique and specific conundrum for its leaders.

The district is located near the Ellsworth Air Force base, and about 45 percent of students are dependents of military personnel, including some who have recently returned from duty in Italy and South Korea, two countries heavily hit by the virus. On top of that, the district’s teaching force skews older, with the average teacher having 20 years of experience and at least 50 teachers with 30-plus years, pushing them toward the demographic that data suggest is more vulnerable to the virus.

“And so with that, we have some with compromised immune systems. I think we’re pretty vulnerable in that area,” said Superintendent Alan Kerr. “That’s part of the calculus, too, [and] day care, and the economic strain it’s going to put on the parents. And another aspect we have to look at, that most schools don’t, is that we sometimes have families with two parents deployed,” which means some students are staying with other relatives, including grandparents.

Different Scenarios, Different Plans

There’s a variety of conflicting information on the efficacy of closing schools, which is making a tough call even tougher.

Research on the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 points to pre-emptive closures as an effective way to limit outbreaks, even as others note differences in how COVID-19 and the demographics of the affected population compare with those of the earlier pandemic.

At the time of this writing, thousands of schools had been closed or were scheduled to close because of COVID-19, affecting more than 1.3 million students, but those numbers continue to change rapidly. (Visit Education Week’s map for the latest statistics.)

In a new document released late this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that a short to medium level of closure, from a few days to two to four weeks, might be appropriate to clean and disinfect schools, or respond to significant absences among students and staff.

Those are the time periods currently selected by many of the hundreds of districts that have closed. But data modeling doesn’t show that those would affect the infection rates of COVID-19, the CDC said.

The agency also unveiled a flow chart to help districts make decisions about closing and urged them to consider the academic and unintended impact of closures. It’s the federal government’s most specific set of guidelines for schools to date on COVID 19.

Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence T. Spring, third from left, and his cabinet examine a map of coronavirus cases as they determine the appropriate steps for their district in light of the virus.

Some U.S. districts, like Chicago, which closed one high school this week, are explicitly deferring to health agencies; the nation’s third largest school district has held its press conferences in tandem with them. At one this week, Chicago’s public-health deputy commissioner, Jennifer Layden, defended the city’s decisions not to close schools en masse, stressing that sustained person-to-person contact is necessary for transmission.

“It takes close, direct contact with someone who has a case to be considered exposed to the virus,” she said.

In Schenectady, N.Y., the district is also taking its cues from health agencies. But as it’s worked to re-evaluate its own emergency plans, the district is discovering ways in which its contingency plans don’t quite line up with the fast-changing realities of COVID-19.

Closing a school for one day to scrub it down is a far different response from what would need to happen if health agencies determine that everyone in one of its schools needs to self-isolate for 14 days, noted Superintendent Laurence Spring. And those pose different scenarios for the district to map out.

“How good do we think our records are in terms of who’s set foot in the building in the last 14 days?” he noted. “If the mailman is coming in to drop off a package, and he’s all the way into the building, he doesn’t necessarily sign in or [do] the guys who are delivering stuff for lunch. There are a bunch of those places where we figured, ‘Geez, I bet we wouldn’t be at 90 percent accuracy if we need to provide names to a disease investigator to map back from a confirmed case.’ ”

The district is now tightening up those procedures in its buildings. It’s also wrestling with how to provide needed services to students if it must close schools. The district has extra Chromebooks to distribute to students, and with about 85 percent of them qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, it also will continue to deliver thousands of backpacks of food to students.

But how can it get those into students’ hands while not potentially exposing more staff members to the virus? Those are the technical details the district’s staff is now wrestling with, Spring said.

Rob Anderson, the superintendent of the Boulder Valley district in Colorado, described a similar scramble to account for the flood of often conflicting reports leaders are receiving about the virus.

Information about the virus “is breaking in ways the decision matrix that we set up never anticipated,” he said. “You find yourself just conversion and putting your heads together to make the best decision you can.”

And in Jefferson County, classes were to end early March 13 so the district can deep-clean schools and teachers can assemble instructional packets for students. The West Virginia district is asking each teacher to prepare at least two weeks’ worth of activities, with accommodations for those who don’t have internet access. District guidelines say they can’t be “busywork” and must link directly to its curriculum.

“There is never going to be a piece of paper or a computer that replaces a teacher,” Superintendent Gibson said. “But we’re here to deliver kids an education, so we need to find as many and as creative ways for students to continue their instruction.”

Communications Key

As they weigh the options, the superintendents all said that accurately communicating fast-changing circumstances was both crucial—and challenging.

“There’s a balance where you want to inform but you don’t want to panic people, and sometimes when you write guidelines, they’re too broad,” said Kerr of South Dakota.

“We can make the best-laid plans but we don’t control any of the triggers, and all of those unknowns create fear. Fearful people are sometimes angry, or they’re hurt, or they’re upset and they’re not logical,” said Gibson. “So part of what we try to do is quell fear through information. We communicate a lot. We answer questions.”

Even inadvertent mixed messages can cause frustration. Kerr said he got some blowback because the district’s pandemic plan notes that teachers will be paid if and when schools close, while most hourly workers won’t be, with their days added to the end of the school year. That’s not a function of status, he explained, but of employees’ different work contracts.

In Schenectady, Spring said some parents were confused by New York state’s decision to declare a public emergency. Usually, the state does that because of a severe snowstorm—and when that happens, staff and students alike don’t come to schools, he noted.

“This state of emergency was declared to [ease procurement rules]s for the state, and we needed to communicate that to parents,” Spring said, ticking off a list of topics he’s included in the district’s daily updates: “It does not change the fact that we still have school. There aren’t any recommendations about everyone staying home. We do continue to pay close attention to health updates. Hand-washing is still really, really important.”

Parents are understandably concerned, though, and they’ve been putting pressure on districts to consider closing in some locations. In Montgomery County, Md., more than 17,000 residents had signed a petition to move up the district’s spring break to prevent transmission of the virus. (The county has several confirmed cases of COVID-19.)

In all, Spring said his district feels like it’s made progress on its plans from a few weeks ago. But he acknowledged that most districts will probably still face unexpected problems if and when they have to close.

“There will still be things—and things of reasonable significance, not just minor details—that will be like, ‘Nobody thought about that or how to solve for that,’ ” he said. “There’s this black box in which the department of health is saying, ‘We become in control of the site, and we’ll let you know.’ Well, ‘we’ll let you know’ is a really hard thing to plan for.”

An alternative version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Weighing the School-Closing Call on Coronavirus


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