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Proactive School Closings Can Stem Disease Spread — But Closing Causes Its Own Worries


As the coronavirus spreads worldwide, many countries, including Japan and Italy, have issued widespread school closures. Research shows that closing schools proactively can slow down the spread of disease. But here in the U.S., the question of whether to close schools is keeping leaders up at night. NPR's Cory Turner reports.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Nicholas Christakis says his Yale University lab has always been about studying one word.

NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: We study how germs spread. We study how ideas spread. We study how behaviors spread.

TURNER: Christakis wrote the bestseller "Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins Of A Good Society." And his lab is now studying how coronavirus might spread. He says closing schools is one of the most effective things a community can do to slow it down. And it's better, he says, for school leaders not to wait until a student or staff member actually gets sick.

CHRISTAKIS: It's sort of closing the barn door after the cow is gone if you wait for the case to occur.

TURNER: Christakis points to studies of the 1918 Spanish flu. He says cities that were quick to close their schools then saved lives.

CHRISTAKIS: Closing the schools before anyone in the schools is sick is a very difficult thing to do, even though it's probably extremely beneficial and much wiser.

TURNER: School leaders say it's very difficult because so many kids get so much from their schools.

SONJA SANTELISES: For a large number of our students, the safest place for them to be is actually in school.

TURNER: Sonja Santelises is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. And she says if she has to cancel school, many parents won't be able to take off work, so children could be heading home to empty households. And that's a worry all over the country.

CHRIS REYKDAL: Yeah, I think that's honestly the hardest contemplation for our districts.

TURNER: Chris Reykdal is superintendent of public instruction for Washington state, which has been hit hard by coronavirus.

REYKDAL: To send, you know, a million Washington kids home knowing that for hundreds of thousands of them, they simply will not have any parents at home.

TURNER: Not only won't there be parents at home. There might not be lunch, either.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Food insecurity is a real challenge in our community, even without an emergency.

TURNER: Alberto Carvalho heads Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and he says roughly three-quarters of his students live at or below the poverty line. These kids not only depend on schools for lunch. They also get free breakfast, free snacks and many, he says, get free dinner. That's why Carvalho and school leaders all over the country are hustling to build meal plans in case schools have to close. Miami-Dade is adapting its hurricane plan. In Baltimore, Santelises says schools often send kids home on the weekend with a special backpack full of food. And maybe they could do something similar, she says, in the event of a coronavirus closure.

SANTELISES: That only, typically, gets a family through a weekend, so we have other ideas. We're just trying to see whether they will work in the current context.

TURNER: There's one more word that has school leaders scrambling right now - equity. See; if schools have to close for a week or more, school leaders want to be sure that learning doesn't entirely stop. But schools have a legal obligation to make sure that whatever they do works for every child, and that can be expensive. Chris Reykdal says some schools in Washington state are exploring online learning, and they're asking themselves, does every child have a computer and Wi-Fi and access to staff if they have a disability?

REYKDAL: Those are paramount questions for our schools. And if they can't deliver that, when they choose to jump to an online model, it's unlikely they're providing a legal basis for an equitable education.

TURNER: Of all the district leaders I spoke with, only one - Carvalho in Miami-Dade - says he is confident he has the tech resources to keep kids learning even if school is canceled.

CARVALHO: Enabled by a bond referendum that goes back to 2012, we have acquired in excess of 200,000 personal devices.

TURNER: That's right - 200,000 laptops, tablets and smartphones that kids can take with them if schools close. But many school leaders told me they may instead have to treat coronavirus like a long, heavy snow, meaning they'll either try to make up the lost days this summer or simply have to write them off.

Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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