When deciding whether to close schools, safety is the top priority for school and local officials.

It will take far more consideration to close for an extended period of time in response to an incidence (or outbreak) of COVID-19 than it will take for a snow day or other events such as water main breaks, power outages, etc. Snow or inclement weather closures are a fairly simple calculation—the risks and dangers are generally well-known and understood (cars and busses slipping on streets, children slipping on sidewalks), and the loss and inconvenience is usually minimal—lost-learning time is minimal and school systems usually build in a few extra days to account for inclement weather or other unexpected closures.

While some school districts have back up plans and safety nets in place, long-term, wide-spread closure is not something many have faced or are prepared to address without additional community support and resources.

When making decisions about longer closures—likely minimum of 14 days for K-12 school systems—officials will need to consider the severity of the outbreak in the community and the impact on the students, employees and others if school remains open. They also find themselves considering the impact and implications of closure.

In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while remaining operational, many schools have begun to enforce and increase hand-washing protocols. However, it is also important to remember that schools are also consumers of goods that face shortages (such as soaps and hand sanitizer for students and gloves for food service workers) and officials need to consider how they can adapt and respond when they are expected to provide a safe and sanitary environment if they remain operational amid an incidence or outbreak.

Other issues decision-makers are considering:

  • Continuing to provide additional services such as free and reduced lunch for students.
    • Many schools now also offer breakfast and backpack weekend food for families in need and school closures can gravely impact the nutritional well-being of these students.
    • Can this be remedied by delivering meals to students?
      • Factors to consider:
        • If a location for pick up is designated for meal delivery, how to be sure that is not a center for virus spreading?
        • Are there increased risks/food safety issues (what if a food handler tests positive)?
        • Will this become a county or state Health and Human Services responsibility if the schools are closed or will some schools continue to operate kitchens and facilitate food services?
  • Students need safe (and preferably productive) ways to spend their time when not in school—what will they do?
    • Can the government regulate how many and how and where students can gather if schools are closed?
    • Pop-up camps or other traditional childcare options may defeat the purpose of the closure—just shift the risk to another location.
    • Can parents adopt a co-op approach where 5-10 families come together so each family only has to take one day off every 1-2 weeks (or can that many children not gather together, again defeating the purpose of the closure?)
  • Continuity of education, especially in the case of extended closures, may be a top goal.
    • Can this be achieved via online learning?
      • Do all students have access to internet and devices?
      • Are free services available? If so, do parents know about them or how will they become better informed?
      • Some school districts have contracts for online public school services.
        • Can they be scaled?
        • How quickly can families and schools shift to this model?
    • Can schoolwork be sent home/distributed weekly as the closure progresses?
    • Continuity is important because:
      • Students must meet testing requirements and benchmarks for school funding and to graduate to another class
      • Coursework is needed for preparing for and taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams; in turn many students may rely on AP Credits for college placement purposes and to reduce the number of credits needed for graduation (this can have a significant financial impact).
    • If a state of emergency is declared, are makeup days required?
    • Will school have to be extended into the summer per the state code?
  • While not necessarily part of the closure calculation, it is important to also note potential ripple effects of closures including:
    • Parents losing time from work.
    • Hourly school workers not earning wages (bus drivers, food-service, substitute teachers and the like).
    • Economic impacts of schools paying salaried workers during closure but also having to pay additional costs if missed time is made up.

These are some of the considerations decision makers will need to keep in mind when thinking about school closures amid COVID-19.