Schools and the Coronavirus

Close the schools, an anxious neighbor says on Nextdoor (a local online bulletin board), when a parent of two school children in the community in which I live came in contact with someone who was infected with the coronavirus (see comment below: a careful reader noted that the source I used said the parent was not infected). Public schools so far have remained open but nearby private schools have closed. Stanford University suspended face-to-face classes for next week telling faculty to teach online remaining classes in the quarter. No local district has yet closed its public schools. But whether to keep public schools open or shut remains in the air. Parents scramble to hire people just in case the schools do close but their workplaces remain open It is a day-by-day anxiety-fest. But not only in this affluent community.

In New York City, there are 1.1 million students of whom three-quarters are designated as poor. A recent article makes clear that schools do more than teach content and skills.

… {S]chool may be the only place they can get three hot meals a day and medical care, and even wash their dirty laundry.

That is why the city’s public schools will probably stay open even if the new coronavirus becomes more widespread in New York. Richard A. Carranza, the schools chancellor, said earlier this week that he considered long-term closings an “extreme” measure and a “last resort.”

Responses from Palo Alto and New York City public schools strip away the cloak of hidden inequalities that are endemic to American life in 2020. Should Palo Alto schools close, nearly all of the parents–many of whom have both spouses working–will have money to hire adults to help care for their children at home.

Not so for East Palo Alto families –across an expressway from Palo Alto–where many moms and dads cobble together multiple part-time jobs in low-paying industries (e.g., Home Depot, IKEA, fast food franchises, home gardening) with no paid sick leave available.

An impending crisis disrupts the taken-for-granted in our lives. Especially when it comes to public schools. They are crucial in keeping the economy strong because, in addition to learning content and skills, and issuing credentials to enter college and eventually the workplace, in times such as now, their legal custody of children becomes starkly obvious. Schools, past and present, then, are expected to take good care of their charges and also be social service centers and community hubs.

The importance of schools to daily life and the larger society during a pandemic becomes obvious. But does closing schools reduce spread of the virus and thus deaths or do schools have little to no effect on the spread of the respiratory ailment?

History offers some clues to answering the question. A historian of medicine investigated the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed nearly 750,000 Americans (not a typo). He and his colleagues studied 43 cities that used school closings as one of the ways to abort or slow the spread of the virus and thereby reduce mortalities. Here is what he found:

We looked at 43 large cities that carried out some combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs): isolating the ill or those suspected of being ill in hospitals or at home; banning public gatherings; in some cases, shutting down roads and railways; and closing schools.

School closing turned out to be one of the most effective firewalls against the spread of the pandemic; cities that acted fast, for lengthy periods, and included school closing and at least one other NPI in their responses saw the lowest death rates.

Of course, all NPIs are socially disruptive and should be used only as a last resort, to control infections that are highly transmissible and dangerous, and have high fatality rates. The primary problem with the new coronavirus is that we have never before experienced an outbreak with it, so we do not yet have good, stable numbers to tell us how serious it is.

The uncertainty over the effects of the virus, how many that contract the disease recover or die, the lack of a vaccine–takes up to a year to develop and test one–and absence of anti-viral medications complicates greatly making decisions about closing schools. That in the U.S. there are 13,000-plus school districts–each with their own school board and superintendent–with over 100,000 public schools surely doesn’t help in corralling the contagious virus.

The historian closes his article with the following advice:

To be sure, more than 80 percent of the Covid-19 cases reported so far have been mild, and few children have been among the people suffering from serious or deadly cases. But most parents would tolerate the inconvenience of school closings if it meant they were avoiding even a relatively small risk to their child’s health. Just as important, children of all ages are especially good at spreading respiratory viruses, which puts adults who work in schools as well as health workers in emergency rooms and hospitals at risk if schools remain open. Keeping kids at home could be an important part of saving lives.

In the history of medicine, we have never been more prepared to confront this virus than we are today. But this history also teaches us that when it comes to school closings, we must always be ready to act today — not tomorrow.

What the historian ignores, however, is the economic insecurity and inequalities that pervade the U.S. and the social effects of school closings on lower-middle and working class Americans and those poor families without any resources. Serious disruption rather than the euphemism of “inconvenience” is the operative phrase for this substantial portion of Americans.

Future policies that would lessen the disruption would be state and federal legislation mandating paid sick leave for minimum wage jobs. That would be a start and a positive outcome of this pandemic.

8 Comments

Filed under school leaders

8 responses to “Schools and the Coronavirus

  1. David F

    Hi Larry—thanks for this excellent post–I’ve shared it on Twitter and elsewhere. I teach at an indy high school in the middle of a big city. We’re all getting ready for what we see as an inevitable closure–our student body comes from the city and all surrounding counties in our metro area, so there’s probably a greater chance we’ll have students/faculty/staff exposed to it than a neighborhood school. However, we don’t have an LMS other than Google Classroom so we’re each trying to determine the best way to keep our lessons going. I’m planning on spending most of the next few days copying and scanning texts for the students to read and write on (I teach history).

  2. Jane David

    Hi Larry, NextDoor comments led you to think that the parent of the 2 students was infected with the virus. The link you included makes it clear that the parent had been exposed to someone with the virus but no evidence that they contracted it.

  3. Hi Larry. Thank you for this timely and thought-provoking post. Working at a Title I school, I know the economic hardships it would cause if my district chose to close the schools. I believe educators need to be proactive instead of reactive. So I think districts would be smart to begin discussions on how to move courses to an online format to reduce the negative impact school closures would have on the academic progress of our most vulnerable children–those who come from low-SES. households. This brings up another point that children from low-income households experience: lack of access to technology (e.g., devices, Internet). Most of my students have access to the Internet, but that access is from their phone–which is not the most efficient way to access the content. or complete assignments. So there needs to also be a contingency plan for students who will not have reliable online access, too. I don’t have any answers right now, but I have been thinking about how I can best support my students in the event that my school is closed.

  4. Pingback: Something to Consider… | Living the Learning Curve

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