kccu

States Begin Widespread School Closures To Fight Coronavirus

Mar 12, 2020
Originally published on March 13, 2020 12:04 pm

Updated at 12:41 p.m. ET Friday

Officials in Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and the District of Columbia have announced that schools in their states will be closed for several weeks amid concerns about the coronavirus. The statewide closures come after many school districts and dozens of colleges and universities have temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 disease.

On Friday, school districts in Southern California became the latest to announce closures, with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the San Diego Unified School District closing for two weeks beginning Monday. They are the two largest districts in California, with more than 750,000 students combined.

According to an analysis from Education Week, as of Friday morning, "at least 18,700 schools have been closed or are scheduled to close, affecting at least 8.1 million students." That is a small but quickly growing fraction of the approximately 50 million students in K-12 public and private schools in the United States.

Twelve people have tested positive for the virus in Maryland, though according to state officials, three have already made a full recovery. Five have tested positive in Ohio.

In Maryland, the decision to close public schools for two weeks was prompted by a patient in his 60s outside Washington, D.C., who tested positive for the disease with no known exposure to it from travel or a previously known infected individual. That suggests it is spreading within the community.

"The circumstances of this case indicate that we are entering a new phase of this crisis in our state," Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters Thursday. "We should expect the number of cases to dramatically and rapidly rise. Our primary focus is now turning from containment to aggressively working to mitigate and limit the spread of the virus."

The school closures in Maryland are scheduled from March 16 to 27. Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, told reporters that school buildings and buses will be thoroughly cleaned during the break.

Maryland state officials are working to make sure that during this time, students will still be provided meals, given that school meals are a crucial source of nutrition for many children.

Hogan said state officials are also taking a range of other measures, including requiring some state employees to telework, limiting public access to state buildings, prohibiting gatherings of more than 250 people and readying the National Guard for possible deployment.

This comes on the same day that many other governors across the country announced a wide range of measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Earlier on Thursday, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the state's kids would have "an extended spring break of 3 weeks" starting on Monday. That includes public, private and charter K-12 schools.

"During this extended period of closure, schools should work to provide education through alternative means and school district leadership may make decisions on whether to use their school buildings," the governor's office said in a statement. The state's Department of Education is also working on a strategy to continue providing meals for children.

In Oregon, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown made clear that closing schools was a difficult decision that poses its own public health risks: "Schools are critical institutions that provide important services for all our students, but especially our most vulnerable. ... So many of our families depend on school in order for parents to go to their jobs, and for students to access health care and receive nutrition assistance."

But Brown conceded that so many students and school staff across the state were opting to stay home from school that "it has now become impossible to functionally operate schools due to workforce issues and student absences. Schools are experiencing critical shortages in staff, and superintendents are concerned for school personnel who are at elevated risk such as those over age 60 and those with underlying medical issues."

In announcing the closure of schools across Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tweeted: "I know this will be a tough time, but we're doing this to keep the most people we can safe. I urge everyone to make smart choices during this time and to do everything they can to protect themselves and their families."

"This is a proactive measure to limit the potential community spread of COVID-19," said New Mexico Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, whose state had six confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday night. "We have seen other states take this measure after they have experienced community spread of this virus. New Mexico is going to be proactive and do everything we can to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

In Washington, D.C., Lewis Ferebee, the public schools chancellor, announced early Friday that the District would shift its April spring break to next week and then practice distance learning through the end of March. Ferebee said schools would reopen April 1.

Kentucky also appears poised to close many schools across the state. "Effective Monday, March 16, [Democratic Gov. Andy] Beshear is suggesting Kentucky's schools suspend in-person classes for at least two weeks," according to the state's Education Department.

In a move to relieve pressure on state school leaders, the U.S. Department of Education announced several measures Thursday that would temporarily loosen federal accountability standards as states head into annual testing season. The department announced "[it] would consider a targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances." States could also get a free pass for absentee rates that have skyrocketed because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Education Department held firm though on federal protections for students with disabilities, saying that if a school plans to provide students with distance instruction during a closure, perhaps online, "the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities."

School closures are even affecting whole countries. On Thursday evening, Belgium and Portugal announced that schools nationwide would be shutting down because of the coronavirus.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.