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Disruptive School Closings Raise Questions of Equity

photo of mother and daughter walking out door

March 18, 2020 -- At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s easier to count the number of states that haven’t closed its public schools than the ones that have.

As of March 17, 39 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have all closed schools over fears of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio took the aggressive step last Thursday of shutting down all schools in the state -- public, private, and community -- for at least 3 weeks. DeWine later told CNN that children may be out the rest of the school year. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly one-upped DeWine days later when she ordered all schools closed for the remainder of school year.

The moves coincide with CDC guidance from last week that says closing schools for only a short time “will be unlikely to stem the spread of disease or prevent impact on the health care system, while causing significant disruption for families, schools, and those who may be responding to COVID-19 outbreaks in health care settings.”

Scott Brown, 37, who lives in Streetsboro, OH, near Akron, with his wife and his two elementary-age daughters (6 and 8 years-old), read online that his kids’ school would close from March 16 until April 3. The school’s teachers were asked to provide 10 days of lesson plans that will be posted on the school’s website or printed out in packets for families without internet access.

Brown, a police officer married to a nurse manager, took the news in stride. “I wasn’t surprised by the announcement, given how people were reacting, and I understand the governor’s desire to limit community spread. I am fortunate enough to have a good support system with my mother and in-laws watching the kids while we work.”

While Brown’s wife works a traditional 9-to-5 workweek, he’s more flexible, with a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule and two weekdays off. “I am already at home in the afternoons helping my second-grader with homework. It also helps that we need child care only a few days a week when I am not there.”

Although his children don’t take part in the school’s free and reduced-price lunch service, the school is giving free lunches to anyone who wants to pick them up at the school.

A Tough Decision

Many public K-12 schools provide meals to low-income children, as well as other services. When public health and safety are the priority, other parts of the education system, such as feeding and special services, take a back seat, said Daniel A. Domenech, PhD, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, during a webcast hosted by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institution last week.

“The downsides to closing inner-city schools is that they may be the safest place for students to be during the day. This means a lot of children will be home alone and without access to school meals,” says William Schaffner, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the National School Lunch Program that provides free or reduced-price meals to low-income children, announced that schools can provide meals at no cost to students during an unexpected school closure, if they take part in one of the USDA’s summer meal programs. The USDA is also waiving the group setting requirement for states that request waivers. So far, it has granted waivers to more than 20 states.

“I know there are school districts trying to do that with meal drop-off sites and preparing new programs,” Domenech said. “But if a lot of districts close and do online instruction, some families don’t have wireless or internet access. Superintendents will do everything possible to help them, but, it will not be equitable for all children,” he said.

Some school districts are getting help. Internet service provider Comcast is now offering 60 days of free internet access as part of its Internet Essentials service, which is designed for low-income families. The service normally costs $9.95 a month. There are no contracts or credit checks, and the company will ship a modem and router for free.

Of course, free or low-cost internet access doesn’t matter much without a computer to use it with.

Officials are also grappling with competing pressures. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was under pressure to keep his city’s schools open longer because “many, many parents want us to keep schools open, depend on it, need it, don't have an option,” he told the media at a March 12 briefing. He also said closing the schools would impact the children of health care workers, first responders, and others, and it would increase the need for “some very substantial fallbacks to protect and support the children,” according to a statement.

When de Blasio announced Sunday that New York City schools will be closing and moving toward a remote learning model, he mentioned that computer hardware and “grab and go” meals will be provided to students who need them.

Are School Closures Effective?

The CDC, in last week’s new guidance, says there is a role for school closures in response to actual school-based cases of COVID-19. These range in length from a few days for decontamination and contact tracing; to 2-4 weeks when a significant number of staff and students are absent; to 4-8 weeks or longer when there’s a substantial community spread. The CDC defines this as “large scale community transmission, significantly impacted health care staffing, and multiple cases within communal settings.”

The CDC says that based on science and reports from other countries, only longer school closures, like 8 to 20 weeks, may have some impact on community spread, but other efforts, like hand-washing and home isolation, have more impact on both the spread of disease and health care measures. The CDC also says that places that have closed schools, such as Hong Kong, weren’t able to reduce the spread more than places that didn’t close schools, such as Singapore.

Schaffner says, “We’re at a terrific disadvantage in the U.S., because we don’t know how widely spread the coronavirus is because we have been so modest in our testing.”

“We’re in the curious position of being partially in the containment phase -- where we want to prevent the spread of the virus very intensely -- finding every case, isolating and treating them, and finding all their contacts -- and partially in the mitigation phase,” he says.

The two goals of mitigation are to avoid serious illnesses and deaths by focusing on the most at-risk groups, and “flattening the curve” so that cases are more spread out over time to “prevent the health care system from being swamped with patients beyond its capacity,” he says

Social distancing, which is keeping at least 6 feet away from someone, is important because the virus is transmitted through close physical contact when an infected person exhales and a person nearby inhales the microscopic virus, says Schaffner.

“There are enough data to suggest that doing social distancing with all its implications does help to dampen outbreaks,” he says.

Domenech pointed out that with the ability for the disease to spread, school closings also cut the risk of exposure for teachers and staff. “Teachers will get sick, and a significant number are age 50 and older, which is a high-risk group. I have been a teacher and my daughter’s a teacher -- schools are a breeding ground for infections.”

Universities and Colleges Send Students Home

Valerie Lehmann, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, was taking her midterms last week when she read an email from the school president, telling students to not return to campus from spring break, which starts this week, until April 10. The email mentioned confirmed cases in Prince George’s County, where the university is located.

The chancellor of the University of Maryland System advised all its 12 universities and colleges, which serve more than 135,126 undergraduate students, to take similar actions.

“We expected the email because other universities were taking similar actions. But we didn’t expect it to last so long -- we thought they would just add one week to our spring break,” says Lehmann.

She packed up her plants, textbooks, and lots of clothes from her shared apartment on campus to take to her family’s home last Friday.

All classes will be taught online starting at the end of March. Lehmann, who studies electrical engineering, wonders how that will work for her in-person lab class. “The teachers have expressed to us that it will be harder for them to convey information online rather than in person, so they plan to reduce our workload,” she says.

A professor also told the students that it takes more discipline to take online classes and study from home than being in the classroom.

“With K-12 school closings, some of my classmates will also will have young siblings at home -- it’s not the ideal environment for doing college-level classes,” says Lehmann.

The university plans to keep its campus open, with reduced services, and has asked students who need to live on campus during the monthlong break to complete an online application.

Trend Toward Online Learning

Scores of public and private universities and colleges nationwide have also canceled classes and are preparing to teach online classes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Some are pausing campus classes for a few days or weeks, including Columbia, Princeton, and Indiana University, while others are canceling classes through the end of the term, including Stanford and Harvard, according to AP News.

Dan King, president of the American Association of University Administrators, predicted “many, many more” colleges will move learning online as campuses work to contain the virus and the anxiety around it, reports AP News.

Vanderbilt University, a private institution in Nashville, also decided to cancel classes after several students reported being exposed to a student who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We’re doing what other institutions are doing -- getting all our faculty to teach online. This is affecting primarily the undergraduate schools with everyone scrambling to do that. So they’re participating in the mitigation phase while our state Department of Health is in the containment phase,” says Schaffner.

With more campuses canceling classes by the day and the number of coronavirus cases rising, there is a looming chance of a long-term impact on final exams, student financial aid, and graduation ceremonies.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 18, 2020


Scott Brown, police officer, Streetsboro, OH.

William Schaffner, MD, professor of infectious diseases, Vanderbilt University.

Valerie Lehmann, junior, University of Maryland, College Park.

Daniel A. Domenech, PhD, executive director, the School Superintendents Association.

Caitlin Rivers, PhD, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Streetsboro City Schools: “School Is Closed for All Students Effective 3/13/2020-4/3/2020 or TBD.”

University System of Maryland: “About USM,” “Statement by University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay A. Perman: Guidance on USM Spring Break, Distance Learning, and Related COVID-19 Preparations.”

University of Maryland: “Coronavirus Information.”

University of Maryland Division of Student Affairs: “Message From the Vice President for Student Affairs on Student Support.”

Vanderbilt University: “Mar. 9, 2020 -- Classes suspended and new guidelines.”

CDC: “Interim Guidance for Administrators of US K-12 Schools and Childcare Programs; Plan, Prepare, and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” “Considerations for School Closure.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Secretary Perdue Announces Proactive Flexibilities to Feed Children When Schools Close,” U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Secretary Perdue Statement on President Trump’s Declaration of National Emergency Regarding COVID-19.”

NYC, the Official Website of the City of New York: “New York City to Close All School Buildings and Transition to Remote Learning, March 15, 2020,” “Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Holds Media Availability on COVID-19, March 13, 2020.”

Education Week: “Map: Coronavirus and School Closures.”

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