Coronavirus: Experts debate value of school closures

Close school settings can spread disease but students also rely on school for nutrition and safety
By: | March 11, 2020
As coronavirus spurs school more closures in Seattle and elsewhere, school lunch and student safety issues had experts debating the best response. (Marcos Osorio/EyeEm, GettyImages)As coronavirus spurs school more closures in Seattle and elsewhere, school lunch and student safety issues had experts debating the best response. (Marcos Osorio/EyeEm, GettyImages)

As coronavirus concerns convinced more superintendents to close more schools Wednesday, school lunch and student safety issues had experts debating the best response.

“Closing the schools before anyone in the schools is sick is a very difficult thing to do, even though it’s probably extremely beneficial and much wiser,” Nicholas Christakis, a Yale University sociologist and physician, told NPR on Wednesday.

But other experts interviewed by NPR cautioned that closing schools may have little impact because COVID-19 hasn’t been making students particularly ill. Also, many of those students rely on schools for meals, a safe environment and other necessities.

“For a large number of our students, the safest place for them to be is actually in school,” Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, told NPR.


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While many districts shut individual buildings, Seattle Public Schools on Wednesday became on the larger districts to announce a longterm, systemwide closure.

All school building activities, including school day instruction, childcare, preschool, athletics, health services, enrichment and other operations were canceled March 12 for at least the next two weeks.

“We know that closing our schools will impact our most vulnerable families and we recognize that working families depend on the consistency and predictability of supports and services our schools offer,” the district said in a statement. “We are working with partners and the city to determine how to best mitigate the impact closing schools will have on working families.”

In Connecticut, which has reported three cases, New Canaan Public School has closed its school for two weeks. An elderly resident of the town tested positive for coronavirus, WFSB-TV reported.

The district will shift to online education Friday, it announced on its website.

“By continuing to take good care of ourselves, our families, and each other, we will continue successfully navigating the issues and challenges ahead,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi, in a message to the community.


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On the other hand, in Arizona which has reported six coronavirus cases, state and county health agencies there are not currently recommending school closures, the Phoenix New Times reported.

That doesn’t mean closures are out of the question.

“We are aware of the questions and logistics our schools will face should a county health department recommend a school closure,” Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said in a statement. “Please know [the department] will be prepared to provide guidance to schools about graduation, assessments, school meals, special education services, etc. should that situation arise.


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