Coronavirus: As US looks at school closures, experts fear shutting them down may do more harm than good
Children, who depend on their schools for free or discounted meals, will be kept out, or they could be left at home unattended
Coronavirus is forcing some schools in the US to close their doors temporarily. But experts worry that school closures could do more harm than good.
Fears have gripped the US after it confirmed more than 500 cases and 21 deaths. Seattle has emerged as the epicenter of the outbreak in the US, with at least 18 deaths linked to the virus. As experts recommend avoiding public gatherings, schools are in the focus.
So far, 22 countries, including China and Japan, have kept children out of schools. A handful of US schools are already following their footsteps and more are likely to join them.
School closures are problematic. Keeping children out of school could increase the risk of infection among older people, who are far more vulnerable to the virus, according to Patty Hayes, Seattle, and King County public health director.
“When we close a school, children have to go somewhere,” she said in a press conference. “So if you think about families, who often are the caregivers, it might be grandma, grandpa and elderly members of the family, the exact people that we are concerned about,” she added.
What is more, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has not called for school closures yet. The federal health agency, however, allows local health officials to recommend temporary school dismissals if the situation demands it.
The Washington State Department of Health said people can go to work, school or childcare if they do not feel sick. "State public health officials have not yet asked any schools or workplaces to close because of COVID-19. However, to protect people or to clean, some schools and workplaces have made this decision," the Washington State Department of Health said on its website.
The authorities encourage people to keep themselves well-informed before making choices that are best for business, school, place of worship, or community.
In the early stages of the outbreak taking off in China, the CDC had warned of potential disruptions to schools in the US, stressing that they must prepare for tele-schooling.
US school shutdown
Schools are shutting down their premises when students or faculty either test positive or are suspected of having the disease. For instance, all schools under the Washington state’s Northshore School District will remain close for up to 14 days, the district announced Wednesday evening. During this period, schools are switching to online teaching.
"Education is a service to which our district is resolutely committed. It is not a place," Northshore Superintendent Michelle Reid wrote in a statement, announcing the closure.
"To that end, we are shifting our education from the classroom with four walls to the cloud. We are taking this strategic approach not because we think by doing so, we will stop an epidemic; we are simply trying to do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19," he added.
In New York, the Scarsdale Public School District in Westchester County announced that all schools will be closed between March 9 and 18 after a faculty member tested positive for the coronavirus.
And some schools have shut their premises as a precautionary measure. Teachers from New York City's SAR Academy, for instance, have switched to taking classes through video conference.
The Trump administration has been supporting local decisions to close schools in response to the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with NBC
“I think the president would respect any decisions that are made at the state and local level. Those are decisions that governors in consultation with local health officials will make as they deem that necessary," he said.
Why school closures are not a good idea?
Experts look to the past to evaluate the effects of school closures. According to Dr Jeff Duchin, the Seattle and King County public health officer, officials learned of its disadvantages during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic a decade ago.
On April 28, 2009, the CDC advised that schools with confirmed or suspected cases should strongly cancel classes. From May 5, 2009, school dismissal was no longer recommended as a community mitigation measure in the US. When schools were closed during H1N1, we saw tremendous community disruption, he explained.
It also does not help that health workers stay home if their children stay out of school, he added. However, he is unsure of how school closures could play out with the new coronavirus.
Besides, closing schools also mean that children, who depend on their schools for free or discounted meals, will be kept out. Not to mention that children could be left at home unattended. These measures could also trigger an increase in dropout rates.
Experts cannot rule out the possibility that online classes are not an option for children who do not have access to technology.
Washington state’s Northshore School District, which enforced school closures, is affecting 23,550 students and 15% of them are eligible for free or discounted meals.
The authorities are aware of the downsides of such measures: plans to offer meals for students who need them are on the cards, they said. They are also assessing the feasibility of offering child care.
For now, the CDC is looking at school closures as an option. "We know we can't close schools forever, so we have to think what's the right timing, what's the right duration, and do we want to close schools or do we want to keep schools open so faculty can continue to come in and maybe serve children who have special needs, get school food there, operate in some modified fashion?” Dr Duchin said.