Deciding whether to close schools has been agonizing for local and state officials who recognize the pivotal role that schools play. “We do not take these decisions lightly, and I am fully aware of the various impacts this has on families and communities,” said Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D), announcing the closure of schools in three counties, accounting for about half of the state’s children, for six weeks. “Today’s decision has a full range of implications from learning plans and childcare, to free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch, just to name a few.”
Children have been relatively unaffected by the virus, and what role they may or may not play in transmission is not well understood. That has complicated decisions about whether to close schools, but jurisdictions that moved to shutter schools — at least 26 states and such large urban school districts as D.C., Los Angeles and New York City — cited the advice of health professionals as well as high employee and student absenteeism that made the schools inoperable. “There’s no ideal solution,” said Paul Bieniasz, a virologist and professor in New York. “We are comparing one bad thing with one potentially extraordinarily bad thing.”
Most negatively affected will be low-income families who rely on schools to provide critical services, including breakfast and lunch, access to learning materials, counseling for children suffering from trauma and even laundry. It will be a struggle for many parents, in low-paying jobs with no paid leave, to arrange child care.
It is commendable that districts such as Montgomery County and D.C. already have announced plans to provide meals and that the federal government, heeding cautions against people congregating, is relaxing rules that required meals to be served at group sites. Likewise, it is encouraging that schools are making arrangements to allow students without Internet access to do their lessons on paper. Comcast is offering free broadband to low-income families. There are teachers and principals who aren’t waiting for their school systems to act but are taking it upon themselves to ensure their students in need get fed and are not neglected.
These are all good first steps. As closures widen and, quite possibly, extend in time, it will be important to come up with new and more systemic ways to ease the hardships many children will face. Those hardships also underscore the need for Congress to enact a second, generous aid package targeted at the most vulnerable.