In hopes of slowing down the coronavirus outbreak, officials from Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest school district, announced that all campuses would close for the next two weeks. The district was joined by San Diego Unified School District in its decision to close schools on Friday, bringing the total number of children affected by the closures to 750,000.
“California has now entered a critical new phase in the fight to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and San Diego Superintendent Cindy Martin in a joint statement (h/t KTLA). “There is evidence the virus is already present in the communities we serve, and our efforts now must be aimed at preventing its spread. We believe closing the state’s two largest school districts will make an important contribution to the effort.”
The districts planned to give students, parents, and school staff more information later on Friday, the statement said. According to KTLA, LAUSD had already put in place a contingency plan for virtual learning that would rely on partnerships with public media stations to provide educational material to kids.
Parents around the country have been clamoring for cities to close K-12 schools, including in New York City, where they remained open as of Friday afternoon. At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized that his administration would try to keep schools open for as long as possible.
“There are three things we want to preserve at all cost: our schools, our mass transit system, and most importantly our health care system,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio pointed to the massive disruptions closing schools would cause—children would need a place to go, and caretakers and officials would need to find a way to feed students in the event of a closure. The mayor also said closures would put additional strains on the city’s first responders and social services network. The estimated number of people infected with coronavirus in the city is expected to rise to 1,000 next week.
“If parents don’t have any choice, they will simply not be able to go to work at all and have to stay home with their kids. That includes people we desperately need. Like first responders. Educators. Health-care professionals. We can’t afford a situation where we start to lose all our public servants because they have to stay home because school is not in session,” de Blasio told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during the press conference (h/t Washington Post).
“This health-care system...is going to be stretched in an intense way. I need every healthy health-care profession at their post. I don’t need a situation where they have to stay home because school is not in session,” he continued. “There are a lot of ramifications here. We’re going to do our damnedest to keep our schools open.”
Closures will come with massive infrastructural challenges that local governments are trying to prepare for. LAUSD will be opening 40 family resource centers for families who need childcare during the two-week shutdown, KTLA reports. They are scheduled to open Wednesday, according to LAUSD’s statement, and will be staffed with trained professionals from 6 am to 6 pm.
The impact these closures will have on vulnerable populations—particularly working-class and low-income families with limited financial, educational, and technological resources—has been a source of concern for many amid this global pandemic.
As the New York Times notes, New York City has to consider that 750,000 of its students live at or below the poverty line, and roughly 114,000 are homeless. Remote learning options, while on the table, are also challenging because nearly one million households in the city lack internet access.
A spokeswoman for the city’s department of education said the administration is ready to feed students in the event of school closures. As Pix 11 News reports, the city serves 900,000 meals a day.
“We know that for many families, school is the only place to get meals for the day and that need continues even if a school closes,” the spokeswoman said. “If a school is closed for 24 hours we’re prepared to serve grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for any student who wants it.”
There are also concerns about the effects longterm closures could have on children. One op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times noted that prolonged schools closures in West Africa between 2014 and 2016 as a result of the Ebola virus stalled educational progress for millions of kids; “they also curtailed normal social interaction and limited access to essential services families relied on, including school nutrition and health programs, information on disease prevention, and access to clean water and sanitation.”
Still, teachers’ unions and some public health officials across the country have advocated for the closures. Unlike the flu, children are less likely than other populations to get severely sick from COVID-19. However, they can still be carriers for the viral infection.
According to the New Scientist, “a recent study of 44,672 people with confirmed COVID-19 infection found that children under 10 years old made up less than 1 percent of those cases and none of the 1023 deaths.”
But there’s also debate among public health experts on how effective these closures could be, especially with a lack of clear guidelines or no clear plan on when schools would reopen—or under what conditions.
Dr. Theodora Hatziioannou, a virologist and professor at Rockefeller, supported the closures in an interview with the New York Times but stressed that social distancing, the practice of restricting your movement and interaction with others, would be essential to its success.
“This doesn’t mean you roam around, it means you stay home,” Hatziioannou said.
Thomas Hagerman, superintendent for Scarsdale schools (a suburb of New York City) made the same point in an email to parents on Wednesday: “Preventative measures are only effective if we embrace and implement them as a community.”