Public Health

More States, Large Districts Shut Down Schools over Coronavirus Fears

(Please find the updated version of this story here.) Washington, Louisiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia, have all ordered public K–12 schools closed amid fears over the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). In addition, several large school districts, including Atlanta, Austin, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles — the second-largest district in the nation — have ordered schools shuttered.

The state closures seem by and large to have been implemented with very little or no coordination with school or district leaders, and none include concrete plans for delivering educational services during the closures.

Friday's Closures

Seven states have now announced closures today, Friday, March 13, to take effect Monday, March 16, for the most part. Those include Washington, Louisiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, Wisconsin and Alabama.

Washington has expanded its school closures statewide until April 24. Previously, the closures only affected three districts. Now, all public and private schools will be closed as of Monday.

Illinois shut down all private and public schools, including charters, until at least March 30.

Wisconsin and Alabama are also closing their schools statewide, both of them starting March 18, a Wednesday. Both states are currently scheduled to resume normal school operations April 6.

Louisiana is shutting down schools until April 13. According to a proclamation the governor signed into effect today, schools are to continue providing essential services, such as meals, to the best of their ability. The proclamation calls for schools to offer distance education, where possible.The instructional minute requirement for the state is being suspended as well.

“We are at an inflection point now and we are going to take bold action to minimize the further spread of this illness. That is why I am issuing this order today, ending all events of more than 250 people, closing our schools, and reducing the amount of face-to-face public interaction at state government buildings,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a prepared statement. “In a separate executive order, I will grant Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s request to move our upcoming elections for April and May to June and July. The limits on gatherings of 250 people or more statewide is based on federal CDC guidance given the community spread which we are currently experiencing. These steps are necessary to protect the health and safety of the people of Louisiana from the risk of COVID-19.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all K–12 schools in his state to close for a minimum of two weeks. The time off will be used for cleaning and disinfecting and developing longer-term plans.

“We are taking this action to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as possible, and to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” said Gov. Northam, in a prepared statement. “I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus. This is a fluid and fast-changing situation. We will do everything possible to ensure that students who rely on school nutrition programs continue to have access to meals, and that the disruption to academics is as minimal as possible.”

According to the department: "Virginia Department of Education officials are working closely with school divisions and the Department of Social Services to ensure students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs are able to access those programs while schools are closed. The Department of Education will issue guidance and memos to superintendents across the commonwealth to provide specifics about the continuity of education, school nutrition, and updated public health guidelines."

“We recognize this decision places burdens on many of our parents and families, especially for those who rely on school nutrition programs for access to healthy food for their children,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, also in a prepared statement. “However, we believe closing Virginia schools is in the commonwealth’s best interest as we seek to stop the spread of COVID-19. Virginia will continue to explore and implement innovative approaches to provide meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch during this closure.”

Finally, West Virginia similarly indicated it will continue to provide nutrition services during its school closures, which affects all pre-K–12 schools in the state.According to the governor's office, "This comes after several measures were taken this week, including the canceling of all out-of-state travel and the suspension of all afterschool and school extracurricular activities. Though at this time there are no positive cases of COVID-19, this step was taken out of an abundance of caution. Child nutrition programs will continue throughout the school closure."

School employees, however, are expected to continue to report to work for the time being.

West Virginia is the only state that has not yet set a date for schools to resumenormal operations.

Thursday's Closures

Five states announced closures Thursday, March 12, to take effect Monday, March 16.

Maryland, which is closing schools for two weeks starting Monday and made the announcement yesterday, recommended that administrators work on plans for delivering educational services.

In Ohio, the news came as a surprise to at least some district administrators. According to local reporting, administrators at Cincinnati Public Schools had no idea of the plans for closure until the announcement was made to the public late yesterday. Schools in Ohio will be shuttered three weeks starting Monday.

Ohio State Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria issued a statement in response to the closures yesterday: “We are especially grateful to schools that have proactively developed plans to keep learning going even if school buildings aren’t open. There is a lot of momentum in Ohio’s schools right now and we would hate to see that momentum stalled, although we understand that today’s announcement does mean there will be disruptions.”

She did not offer guidance to schools or parents affected by the decision: “We understand there are many questions. This is uncharted territory that we all are navigating together. We are working to provide answers but rest assured that we are committed to working with Governor DeWine, the legislature and other stakeholders to provide as much flexibility and latitude as necessary to accommodate these circumstances. Thank you for your patience.”

New Mexico also announced its public school closures yesterday. Closures will begin Monday and are expected to last three weeks.

“This is a proactive measure to limit the potential community spread of COVID-19,” said Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, in a prepared statement. “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. I have been in communication with all of our superintendents about this proactive step, and we are all going to work together to address this public health challenge.”

“We are advising the public of this forthcoming announcement tonight so that parents and students can prepare for this upcoming change and begin to make arrangements,” New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham said in a prepared statement. “We will be informing the public of additional measures that the state will be taking to ease the burden on families and educators and ensure that children continue to be fed and cared for.”

Additional details on the New Mexico closures are expected shortly.

Michigan also made its closure announcement last night. All Michigan schools, public and private, including boarding schools, will close for three weeks beginning Monday.

No specific plans were announced regarding the closures. However, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in a statement released to news outlets, acknowledged the need to address the difficulties faced by students who rely on school-provided meals.

“I am working with partners across state government to ensure educators, parents, and students have the support they need during this time, and to ensure our children who rely on school for meals have access to food,” Gov. Whitmer said. “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.”

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown yesterday announced schools will close for two weeks beginning Monday. She said in a statement released yesterday: “Schools are critical institutions that provide important services for all our students, but especially our most vulnerable, and during this crisis I have worked hard to ensure those critical services continue. 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. However, I have heard from superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents, and students 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.”

Gov. Brown’s office ordered schools to develop plans for reopening schools that “accommodate ongoing impacts of coronavirus. Staff should utilize the final two days of March to finalize plans for operating schools under updated measures, with students expected to return on Wednesday, April 1.”

Schools are also ordered to develop plans to “continue nutrition services during the closure.”

“We are in close communication with school districts across the state, and they will be communicating regularly with their school communities throughout the closure period,” said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, in a prepared statement. “Due to the evolving nature of this crisis, these timelines will be reevaluated in late March in consultation with school administrators.”

Find more resources for schools during the COVID-19 crisis here.