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Maryland school leaders and health experts say coronavirus shutdown could last months

Dr. Karen Salmon, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, announces closure of schools for two weeks on March 12. School leaders say it looks likely that school will need to remain closed much longer.
Dr. Karen Salmon, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, announces closure of schools for two weeks on March 12. School leaders say it looks likely that school will need to remain closed much longer. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

School leaders and health experts say a long term shutdown of schools — perhaps through the end of the school year — seems increasingly likely with new federal guidance showing a short closure has little impact on slowing the spread of coronavirus.

Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon said Monday she was looking at extending the closure of schools beyond the two weeks already announced. Salmon spoke with the state’s 24 district superintendents Monday afternoon about next steps.

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“We are actively looking a the modeling that shows where this virus is going and so we will be making some decisions about that," Salmon said at a press conference, where Gov. Larry Hogan also banned gatherings of 50 or more people and closed bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters. "The reason I closed schools for two weeks is to assess the situation.”

Her comments follow new CDC guidance, released Friday, that indicates schools could be closed between eight and 20 weeks in order to help slow “substantial community spread” of the disease. Most Baltimore-area school districts are scheduled to wrap up for summer in mid-June, within that window. However there are potential downsides, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including the likelihood that children will continue to find places to congregate.

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“It almost seems prudent that schools be shut down for the rest of the year,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Domenech said he will propose schools remain closed for a long period, and is talking with other national education leaders about whether to ask President Donald Trump to recommend schools be closed.

Superintendents across the nation are expected to receive a briefing by the CDC on Tuesday.

One question that remains is how long schools should close and will it be announced immediately.

“If you shut down the school for four weeks, have you really had an impact on the spread?" asked Domenech, adding that superintendents would like better clarity on such issues from the CDC, he said.

“I think it is very unlikely that schools will reopen” in two weeks, said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Not all countries hit hard by the virus have closed schools. Singapore kept its schools open but adopted very aggressive health measures to clean schools and prevent the spread. And South Korea was able to use sophisticated methods to track down people who had been exposed, quarantine and test them.

“They have had greater testing capacity to do these things that it seems like we are still moving toward,” Sell said.

In the United States, whether schools are closed for many months depends on how effectively the social distancing measures that have been put in place work. A long term closure of schools is not something public health experts take lightly and is recognized to have “incredible economic consequences,” she said.

"This is a policy decision that people are still grappling with. It remains to be seen if all the measures work in the context of our country,” she said.

About half of all school children in the nation — about 35.9 million — are now at home, according to Education Week which has been tracking school closures. As of noon Monday, 35 states have decided to close public schools. Combined with district closures in other states, at least 69,000 schools are closed.

“Closing schools for the rest of the year should be on the table. The most important thing right now is to follow the guidance of public health officials to limit and ultimately stop the spread of this virus”


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There are 98,277 U.S. public schools and almost 50.8 million public school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Both national teachers unions are calling for schools across the nation to close.

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In addition, the CDC said, in 40 percent of families, grandparents, an age group most most likely to contract a severe case of the disease, will be taking care of children home from school.

“Closing schools for the rest of the year should be on the table," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association. “The most important thing right now is to follow the guidance of public health officials to limit and ultimately stop the spread of this virus”

But Bost said school systems have to make sure children receive meals and that hourly employees are paid. Everyone must “work together to address the trauma, anxiety and confusion that many of our students may experience in the coming weeks.”

Baltimore County Superintendent Darryl Williams said he can’t predict whether schools will be closed for a long time, but he is operating as though they will.

“This two week window will give us time to think about the what-ifs. I think we should probably be prepared if we get to that point,” he said, listing the many adjustments that will need to be made.

Besides adapting the curriculum to an online format, the county will need to provide paper materials for students to use who don’t have access to the internet. And there must be a way to grade the work. Special needs students, immigrants and others will need to receive accommodations in a different way. And there’s graduations, proms, testing and athletics to be considered, he said.

Katherine Mullen, a Dundalk High School history teacher, said closing schools for the rest of the year may be wise for public health but “the long term impact academically is just enormous."

The gaps in learning will be particularly difficult for students who are already behind and for students who are learning English and trying to master subjects.

Baltimore County is one of the state’s school systems with nearly one laptop for every student. So many of its classes could go online if families have internet access at home. Mullen believes, however, it would be difficult for any student to remain motivated if they are at home and signed on to a computer.

Mullen said schools must be prepared to really recreate the curriculum for next year to build in review for students.

Parents are beginning to take the situation more seriously since Hogan began putting in place stringent measures to contain the spread, said Joe Kane, the treasurer of the Baltimore’s Parent and Community Advisory Board.

Many parents expect the school closing to be extended beyond two weeks, but if schools remain shut for months parents will need a lot of guidance from school officials.

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“Across the city, we are a district with high concentrations of poverty," Kane said. "How does this play out long term?”

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For some students, Kane said, the schools aren’t just centers for learning and eating, they also serve as the place for students to get eye exams, glasses and dental care.

Parents will want to know if summer school will be available and what happens to their child’s education when it is stopped in the middle of the year, he said.

“A lot has happened over the weekend,” Kane said. “I think parents read about what is happening across the world, and they understand this is just the beginning.”

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