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If schools want to have any chance of helping slow the spread of coronavirus, they may have to make decisions about closure sooner than they would like.
This post has been updated with new numbers of school closures.
More than 4.7 million K-12 students across the United States (around 10 percent) are currently staying home due to school closures, according to Education Week’s latest tally.
Worldwide, the numbers are even harder to digest. At least 26 countries – including China, Italy and Japan – have closed schools nationwide. Roughly, 377 million students are shut out of schools in those countries, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. Another 20 countries, have initiated partial closures – so far.
San Diego schools, though, are still open.
The global pandemic caused by a novel strain of the coronavirus, which leads to the disease known as COVID-19, is clearly the most disruptive world event in generations. And the question school leaders must answer is whether to close, and invite one world of unique and difficult challenges, or stay open, and invite another.
Previous studies of influenza have shown that closing schools early enough can significantly slow the spread of disease and ultimately save lives, as Chalkbeat reported. Closing them too late can mean the spread of disease will be slowed very little or not at all.
Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital, says the question of when to close schools, especially in the case of COVID-19, is very difficult to answer.
For one, the novel coronavirus is not the same as influenza. Forms of the flu transmit easily from children back home to their parents and families. Sawyer said it’s unclear if COVID-19 moves in the same way. It may actually transmit more easily from adults to children, which would mean shutting down schools could have less of an impact than it did in previous cases of flu outbreak.
Sawyer acknowledged that schools will likely have to make closure decisions before such information is even available.
“The time to close would be when we really start to see transmission in San Diego,” Sawyer said. “If you’re going to make this decision to close, you want to make it very early on as [transmission] starts to happen.”
At the time Sawyer and I spoke on Thursday, San Diego had no cases of community-transmitted COVID-19. All cases of the disease were believed to be related to travel. But moments later, during a 2:30 p.m. press conference, public health officials announced that the disease has begun spreading through San Diego in one case.
That means, according to Sawyer’s analysis, that if school officials want school closures to even have a chance of being effective in limiting the spread of disease, they will likely have to make decisions sooner than they would like.
But as school officials (and Sawyer too) are well aware, school closures come with their own negative impacts.
“We know we have students that would face food insecurity [if schools closed] and would be left alone at home while a parent has to work. We know we have students without internet access” who would not be able to participate in online learning, said Music Watson, chief of staff to the San Diego County Office of Education superintendent.
School officials are obviously not eager to authorize closures, given the negative impact they would have on so many families – especially those who are already struggling with poverty.
For now, none of San Diego County’s 43 school districts have shut down schools and they are following public health officials’ guidance to cancel events of more than 250 people. However, several hundred students attend most schools throughout the county and high schools are often attended by several thousand students.