By David Griffith, ASCD
It was perhaps the most dramatic moment in an already chilling public health briefing. For the first two months of 2020, the daily news about the relentless spread of a novel Coronavirus in China’s Wuhan province had seemed like a grim, yet remote and self-contained, public health emergency. But at a late February briefing in Atlanta about the response to the first cases of the newly named COVID-19 virus identified in the United States, the nation’s leading doctors and infectious disease experts at the Centers of Disease Control said that the appearance of the disease in countries besides China meant that border containment was likely to fail and that “it’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather . . . exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
CDC officials ran down the list of important ways to contain and mitigate the virus, with now familiar recommendations such as urging everyone to frequently wash their hands, avoid touching their face, clean touched surfaces, and reconsider large gatherings — and suggested voluntary home quarantines for people who suspect they’ve been exposed to the virus. But the most notable recommendation came from Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She suggested schools take practical measures to avoid community exposure by instructing “students in smaller groups or, in a severe pandemic, closing schools and using internet-based teleschooling to continue education.”
It was a national, “What you talkin’ bout Willis?” moment. For many people, parents and even some educators, the possibility of closing schools for an extended period of time gave them the first inkling of the potential scope and severity of a COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s telling that it was the status of schools that captured the attention of the public like no other recommendation. This speaks to the centrality of the K-12 school to family life and to the daily life of society at large in the United States. Schools hold a place like no other institution.
Why Closing Schools Creates Angst
Ask any superintendent and they’ll tell you that one of the hardest decisions they make in the job is whether to close schools for the day when it snows. It’s rarely an easy call, doubly hard because it has to be made in the early morning half-light and with weather forecasts as unreliable as they are. Whatever call is made typically angers a sizeable percentage of the district’s families who think that it is either overly cautious or blithely careless. And that’s just for one day! Considering whether to close schools for weeks at a time — as is now happening in some areas during this COVID-19 outbreak — is like a snow day times 1,000.
To be clear — I’m not suggesting schools shouldn’t be closed temporarily if that’s what local leaders determine is in the best interests of the community. What I am saying is that this situation gives us a chance to think about why school closures create such angst. It’s likely because the fallout from closing schools is usually not mainly about education concerns, but about related issues, such as equity, realities connected to socioeconomic status, technological access, nutrition, and health.
The real hardship a closure creates for poorer families is a huge blind spot for the upper middle-class public. When children stay home from school, particularly younger children, a parent often has to stay home with them. Many parents don’t have paid leave or jobs that allow them to work from home, leading to a financial squeeze. This squeeze is doubly hard for single-parent households. (In addition, one of public health’s concerns is that school closings will stymie the treatment of COVID-19 because health care workers would have to stay home to watch their children.)
While some instruction can be done online, and it’s helpful to use technology as much as is feasible to mitigate the effects of school closings, to suggest “teleschooling” as a practical overall solution akin to “teleworking” ignores how schools are actually set up and function. More to the point, even if schools were able to offer most instruction online, many families — both low-income ones and those in rural areas — don’t have the broadband access (or even basic internet) to make this option workable, much less the necessary computers and software.
What We’re Not Talking About Enough
What’s not been appreciated enough, until perhaps now, are the important things besides instruction that schools provide students for healthy development, and that many children don’t get when their school is closed. Aside from missing daily instruction – which can be made up with extra school days at the end of the year – the biggest loss associated with school closings is the 22 million free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches served by schools every day. For too many students, these are the main nutritious meals they get on a daily basis — a reality teleschooling doesn’t address.
It’s not just learning and nutrition that students miss either. For many students, school is the primary place — and sometimes the only place — where they interact daily with caring adults in a supportive relationship, adults who recognize their talents and potential as individuals.
America’s public schools are central to the vibrancy of the communities in which they reside. It should be no surprise that these same schools will play an oversized role in any community efforts to curtail the COVID-19 virus—and that some closings have been and will still be necessary. ASCD members and educators around the country are at the ready to do all they can to help.
But it’s important for the public and our elected leaders to learn from this crisis that schools are more than the places where students get an education that prepares them for college, career, and citizenship; they are also places where students are nurtured, nourished, and cared for. So the next time a politician laments that schools aren’t doing more, remind them of this time, and remind them of all the things schools and educators do — and do well — for students.
David Griffith is ASCD’s senior director of advocacy and government relations.