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Drastic responses to the coronavirus outbreak such as school closures will be decided at the local level, and national educator groups say that’s where the best informed choices will be made.
School leaders are on high alert as more cases of the COVID-19 virus are reported in the U.S., but they have numerous factors to consider before closing campuses, those groups say.
Shutting down schools could create new challenges for parents, like finding childcare. And it may mean students are at homes without heat or miss meals provided at their schools, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
“They’re balancing all of these considerations,” she said.
Those concerns about school closures are in line with comments made by a top official from the Centers for Disease Control in response to questions from lawmakers this week. Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of CDC, said at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Tuesday that federal agencies can offer guidance but school closures will be decided locally.
“It’s a local decision,” she said. “If there’s too many people sick, of course, you can’t keep going. But really trying to protect the vulnerable and reduce the spread but not disrupt families and all those parents who will be staying home if their kids are home.”
Authority to close schools—whether local or state leaders would decide—varies state to state.
The National Governors Association said its members held a conference call with Vice President Mike Pence this week to talk about coordinating state and federal responses to the coronavirus.
National educator groups say they’re also sharing the latest information from CDC with their members, which has posted guidance for school administrators on its website. Those groups say schools have dealt with similar health crises before such as the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks.
“The reality is that outbreaks happen at the local level and the state level and there needs to be coordination there as well,” said Donna Mazyck, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses.
Planning for more widespread coronavirus cases means emphasizing protocols like hand washing, cleaning, and staying home when sick, she said. But school districts will also have to reconsider sick leave and attendance policies.
“This isn’t the time to press perfect attendance,” she said. “If someone’s sick, you want them home.”
Frustrations Over Administration Response
Some educators still are critical of the administration’s handling of the outbreak so far. The American Federation of Teachers and the Overseas Federation of Teachers sent a letter last week to Thomas M. Brady, director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, asking that schools in countries affected by coronavirus outbreaks be allowed to close and teachers be permitted to telework. The agency operates schools serving families of active duty military in the U.S. and in 11 foreign countries, including Italy.
Even though schools in Northern Italy have closed, the teachers union wrote that the Defense Department education officials have stuck to a mandatory attendance policy for instructors.
The Italian government announced Wednesday it was closing all schools in the country through mid-March to halt the spread of the virus. The Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said the U.S. Education Department also hasn’t played a more active role in providing guidance on responses to coronavirus.
“I am shocked that the Department of Education and the president of the United States have not actually put together the kind of work that would serve as guidance across the country,” Weingarten said.
AFT plans to send a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos later this week outlining steps they hope to see from the Education Department.
Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the department, described Weingarten’s comments as grandstanding.
“Since the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump has taken an unprecedented whole-of-government approach to protecting all Americans, and we have been working closely with our interagency partners to ensure state and local leaders have the most up-to-date information they need to keep students safe,” she said.
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