Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first advised schools to prepare for increased employee and student absenteeism last week, many schools and districts on the West Coast and in a handful of states nationwide impacted by the coronavirus have temporarily shuttered buildings due to outbreaks. 

Washington and California have been hit hardest so far, with the CDC reporting 39 and 36 cases, respectively, as of Thursday. “There’s a lot of anxiety from parents,” Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said, “and that has translated to a presumption of risk and has led to schools closing.” 

The state’s Northshore School District announced a district-wide closure Wednesday for up to two weeks, one of the first Washington districts to do so. Schools that remain open in Washington, California and other affected areas have ramped up cleaning efforts, put in place hygiene and quarantine protocols, and are closely monitoring absenteeism rates while also preparing for worst-case scenarios. 

Here’s what Education Dive has learned far about how districts are navigating coronavirus.

Focus on equity and access with e-learning

As the number of cases climb, districts are grappling with decisions around closure and their options to mitigate school year disruptions with e-learning.

Many large districts have the infrastructure in place for a transition to online learning should the virus spread to their areas. Superintendent of Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools Alberto Carvalho, for example, said his district has an excess of 1:1 devices ready to be deployed if needed, and Superintendent Austin Beutner said Los Angeles Unified School District is preparing for virtual school days in its planning, as well.

Districts in Washington are also training teachers for e-learning. “We have a couple districts that feel very poised to deliver continuous instruction at a distance through Zoom and online learning platforms,” Reykdal said. But, he added, he “cautioned all districts to consider if they can deliver services equitably.” 

If impacted by the virus, Superintendent Michael Trimberger from rural Random Lake School District in Wisconsin said he his district will adopt protocols similar to those reserved for virtual snow days. The CDC has reported 1 to 5 cases of the coronavirus in the state. 

When Random Lake was hit by a snowstorm last year, Trimberger first surveyed parents on home internet availability for students. Around 10% of families didn’t have access, so the district partnered with local wireless providers to offer internet at a reduced rate.

“If and when we would have to go on extended leave, we have some things worked out with them so that we would buy radio transmitters or lease them,” he said. “Our families would be guaranteed internet at least at the speed where they could do homework for $10 a month or for free, depending on their financial situation.” 

For students with IEPs, Trimberger suggested using virtual days as an opportunity to build relationships with parents of special needs students. “With caseloads of 15 to 20 students,” he explained, “we made sure that every virtual day our teachers were reaching out.” 

E-learning not an option? There are workarounds

Against a backdrop of ongoing staff shortages and already-tight budgets, many districts may not have the resources for 1:1 device programs. 

“We aren’t necessarily equipped, at this moment, to handle distance learning for large numbers of students,” said Elizabeth Graser, chief communications officer for Oregon’s Hillsboro School District. The CDC reports a small number of cases in the state. “And with a sub shortage going on already in our region … we’ll need to get very creative about finding every employee with a teaching license, using conditional emergency licenses for staff where appropriate, etc.”

In the absence of 1:1 devices, Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association​, said a majority of districts across the country are working on providing traditional paper packets to get content home with students. The preparation is for roughly two weeks of materials, considering guidance from the CDC is for a 14-day quarantine after onset of symptoms.

In a letter to Washington state districts, Reykdal suggested some might be better off closing instead of continuing learning remotely.

“School districts must ensure equal access to education for all students,” he advised. “It will likely make more sense to cancel school and/or district services and make up missed days at the end of the school year, rather than deploying a distance learning model that can be accessed by some, but not all, of your students.” 

Cutting it close to maxing out makeup days? Here’s what to do  

Districts often try to cushion allotted instructional time to allow for days off due to inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances. But those cutting it close can be helped by waivers of lost instructional time, which many states grant in case of an emergency. 

In Washington, WAC 392-129 allows for such a waiver. Reykdal said an infectious disease outbreak “would likely meet the definition of an emergency closure due to an unforeseen natural event.” 

California’s waiver policy is similar. “Generally, if it’s health and safety related, it’s hard to deny those kinds of waivers because you’re forced into a situation of having [schools] closed,” San Juan Unified School District spokesperson Raj Rai said.

The district’s Harry Dewey Fundamental Elementary School was closed last year after several students contracted norovirus. “In the past, if there has been a school threat where a school has to shut down, California Department of Education has granted waivers for that, too,” Rai said. 

According to the Education Commission of the States, other states with similar policies that would provide instructional-hour exceptions for emergency-related school closures include: 

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

What operations should remain functional during closures? 

The Washington ed department, called the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, is advising districts to plan for ongoing apportionment payments and to ensure payroll continues even in the case of disrupted district operations. 

But providing meals for students on free or reduced priced lunches will be difficult. “It’s impossible for schools to deliver meals to the home of each child,” Domenech said. 

However, Trimberger said that’s a possible solution he is considering, along with letting families pick up meals at an off-site location. I still would want to try to get our families two meals a day,” he said, but added he is looking for more guidance from the CDC and his nutrition teams as to what “no contact” to prevent disease transmission means in the context of meal distribution. 

Finding a way to provide meals in case schools close is a challenge Reykdal is facing as well.  

When we shut down over here for a snowstorm, we don’t provide meals for that day,” he said. He added if schools transition online instead of closing, parents could expect meals to still be provided. 

For Washington’s Seattle Public Schools, that’s the goal: continuing to provide meals through potential closures. If only a few schools are closed, the district is planning for students to pick up meals at another nearby school. In the case of multiple campus closures, it hopes to provide sack lunches at a grab-and-go location. ​​

Nationally, approximately 22 million students depend on free or reduced-price school lunches, according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows schools to serve students meals through the Summer Food Service Program during unexpected school closures through a waiver process. Flexible guidance issued by the agency in November, prior to the virus spread, encourages schools to continue providing meals in case extreme weather or “other events” force area schools and facilities to close.

But how that would change in the case of the virus is uncertain.​ In a letter sent to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the SNA suggests allowing schools to implement grab-and-go and delivery services without requiring states to request a waiver first.​

Reykdal said he is working with the USDA to make sure his districts “understand rules around meals when schools are not operational.”

But the agency’s western regional Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) office, based in California, said it won’t be providing further guidance, and that whether meals are delivered during closures or extended periods of e-learning is up to individual districts.

A spokesperson for the the national USDA FNS office said that the agency is “monitoring the situation closely” and will be “ready to assist in the governmentwide effort to ensure all Americans have access to food in times of need.” “All of our programs — including SNAP, WIC and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs — have flexibilities and contingencies built-in to allow us to respond to on-the-ground realities and take action as directed by Congress,” the USDA spokesperson said. 

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