Editor’s Note: The spread of COVID-19 across the US is a rapidly developing story, and schools are responding quickly. Within 48 hours of this event’s recording, six states and the District of Columbia have announced long-term school closures as confirmed case counts accelerate in many areas across the country. Despite these developments, this discussion provides useful insight for how schools can prepare for outbreaks in their communities, continue to support students during prolonged closures, and what to expect as the outbreak subsides.
The coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is now officially a pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. With the arrival of the coronavirus in the US, the nation’s elementary and secondary schools have begun to respond. According to EDWeek’s school closure tracker, more than 1,000 K-12 schools have now been closed for at least one day in response to the virus—whether for cleaning, planning, or long-term quarantine periods, affecting over 800,000 students as of March 11. Given recent evidence of community transmission in the US in multiple locations throughout the country, it seems highly likely that what we see now is just the beginning of the virus’s impact on America’s K-12 schools and students.
On March 11, the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings hosted a webcast only event that addressed how schools should prepare for and handle a COVID-19 outbreak. Panelists discussed possible school closures and the medical, legal, educational, logistical, and equity issues that may arise with such drastic measures. In this webcast event, Daniel Domenech, Ph.D. and Dr. Caitlin Rivers joined Senior Fellow Michael Hansen in a conversation on how schools should prepare for and handle a COVID-19 outbreak. Dr. Domenech is the current executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. He has more than 36 years of experience in public education, twenty-seven of those years served as a school superintendent. Dr. Rivers is a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. This summary highlights three key points from the discussion: school closures, mitigating adverse impacts of closures, and potential policy responses to school closures.
Closing schools to protect public health
Experience from prior outbreaks of infectious disease show closing public spaces, including schools, prevents person-to-person transmission of the disease. Because the virus has been elusive to efforts to contain and trace it, Dr. Rivers argues that the best collective efforts to slow its transmission is social distancing, which helps to flatten the curve of infection within a community, reducing the demand on health care resources. Personal hygiene measures like handwashing, covering your cough, and staying away from others if you show signs of illness continue to be critically important in maintaining health and reducing the likelihood of transmission.
Some observers have questioned the value of closing schools, given the low impacts of the coronavirus on children and youth. Dr. Rivers dispels that notion, saying there is “new emerging data that children actually have the same attack rate as adults, which means they’re just as likely to be infected, … [but] they have very mild symptoms.” Because children are primary drivers of infection within a community, closing schools will protect public health, even if the personal impact on students is small. Closing schools also protects the educators and other staff in those schools from infection, many of whom are at greater risk. Schools should consult guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and local health departments to determine when closing schools may be necessary.
Mitigating adverse impacts from long-term school closures
The most obvious adverse impact is the loss of learning for students, though this is just the beginning. Disadvantaged students who rely on meal service at schools may need to go hungry. With public schools increasingly becoming the hubs to coordinate and deliver services in community school models, the closure of public schools could also reduce access to medical care, clothing, and even a place to shelter for students suffering from some level of homelessness (estimated to exceed 1 million nationwide). Without a local-level strategy to deliver these services through alternate means, students will simply be temporarily cut off during quarantine periods.
As more and more schools plan for prolonged closures, e-learning is seen as the best way to keep students engaged while out of the school building. Though, Dr. Domenech views this as more of a stopgap measure, to make the best of a bad situation rather than a replacement for in-school learning. Citing reasons ranging from the lack of preparation among teachers and the digital divide in access to devices and the internet, he worries “in a K-12 situation, that’s not going to be applicable … at the elementary level. Most schools may be able to do that with the older students, … providing that they have the resources, providing that every student has a laptop that they can take home… and providing that they have connectivity in the home.”
Recommended policy responses for state and local leaders
Dr. Rivers indicated that because a vaccine countering the coronavirus is likely 12-18 months away, schools will need to think strategically about responses not just for the next few weeks, but for the next year. She advised school leaders to stay vigilant about hygiene even after closures are lifted, and to monitor information from the CDC and local health officials in case further closures are deemed necessary. She also encouraged getting kids vaccinated, both against the flu and the coronavirus when one becomes available.
Considering the prospect of school accountability pressures, like spring testing or student absenteeism measures, as a counterpressure against public health goals, Dr. Domenech expressed public health and safety were clearly more pressing. States will likely need to adjust testing schedules, waive accountability requirements, and may need to add on school days well into the summer; the extenuating circumstances clearly demand these accommodations. He expressed greater concern for seniors who may be disproportionately impacted by the virus and won’t have any more time to make up for it, including disruptions to SAT and ACT testing, preparation for AP tests, or finishing sports seasons to secure scholarships: “There’s going to be a lot of disruption that we can anticipate between now and the end of the school year and possibly going into next year.”