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The pros and cons of coronavirus school closures, explained

The public health measure comes with big trade-offs.

An exterior view of Julia Richman High School after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City’s public school system will be shut down on March 16, 2020.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

New York City is finally closing its schools.

As cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the city neared 300, parents began pulling their children out, and teachers threatened to stay home in protest. Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday announced that the nation’s largest public school system would close on Monday, March 16, until at least April 20, if not much longer.

“This is a decision I have taken with no joy and a lot of pain,” de Blasio said on Sunday.

City officials had resisted closing the schools in part because so many students, including 114,000 who are homeless, rely on them for food and other basic necessities like laundry. De Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo were also concerned that if schools were shut down, health care workers would have to stay home to care for their children, hampering the city’s ability to treat the sick. And as recently as Sunday morning, the mayor had expressed the fear that if schools shut down, “they will be done for the year, done for the school year, maybe even for the calendar year.”

The difficulty of de Blasio’s decision underscores a bigger problem facing school systems around the country: Many health experts say the move is necessary to help slow the spread of the virus, but it will also create a child care crisis that the United States, with its weak child care system and lack of widespread paid leave, is incredibly poorly equipped to handle. Meanwhile, teachers in New York have reported that the district’s coronavirus response has been bungled and could have put students and educators at risk — some, for example, said their schools weren’t even stocked with soap last week. Overall, the question of school closures, like so much about the coronavirus pandemic, exposes not just the severity of the current situation but the fault lines that existed in American society before the crisis hit, just waiting to be tested.

As other school districts closed, New York was criticized for its slow response

In recent days, school districts across the country have closed in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and keep students, teachers, staff, and families safe. The rate of closures dramatically ramped up in the last week — while around 600 schools had closed as of Tuesday, at least 56,000 had announced closures by Sunday, according to Education Week.

That includes most of the largest school systems in the country, including those in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. But as of Sunday morning, New York City schools were still scheduled to open, even though the city has been hit hard by the virus, with the number of cases expected to reach 1,000 this week.

The delay was a reminder that, across the country and the world, closing schools is far from easy.

“The decision to close our schools is not one that we take lightly; as we know when kids are not in school, our community is directly impacted,” Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said in a statement Friday announcing the school system’s closure.

In deciding to close the schools, Miami-Dade, like New York, had to think about food-insecure students — the city will begin food distribution on Monday for any students who rely on schools for meals. The city also distributed mobile devices to students who didn’t have them at home so they can continue some learning remotely while schools are closed.

Meanwhile, in New York, teachers, unions, and parents have been calling on the mayor for the past week to close the schools. But de Blasio was resistant, saying as recently as Sunday morning that the schools might need to remain open because health care workers needed child care while fighting the pandemic. Meanwhile, private schools in the city shut down, as did districts elsewhere in New York and around the country.

As the week wore on, teachers and others reported that New York City was mishandling its response to the coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, teachers told Gothamist/WNYC they’d gotten no instruction on what to do if they or their students were symptomatic. Some said soap dispensers in their schools were empty, even though public health officials say hand-washing is a key way to slow the spread of the virus.

In recent days, city officials had promised that schools would institute enhanced cleaning protocols, according to Chalkbeat — but in at least one school, the extra cleaning hadn’t materialized by late last week.

Meanwhile, teachers were crying during class breaks and getting into shouting matches with school leaders last week over the risk of the virus, according to Gothamist.

The city’s Department of Education, for its part, says it did make efforts to supply schools with adequate cleaning products: “While buildings were opened, we surveyed both public and non-public schools buildings to ensure they had a sufficient supply of hand soap, paper towels, and anti-viral disinfectant inventory,” a department spokesperson told Vox in an email. “Cleaning supplies including soap, paper towels, disinfectant supplies, and face masks were made available to both public and non-public schools at six sites across the City, and we purchase hand sanitizer for distribution as well. We conducted spot checks to ensure schools were appropriately stocked.”

Still, furious with the situation at schools, teachers had planned a “sickout” for Monday, with 400 teachers on an organizing call Saturday, Gothamist reported.

Finally, on Sunday evening, de Blasio announced that the schools would be closed Monday for students and staff, but that teachers would be asked to come back later in the week for training on remote learning, according to the New York Times. The United Federation of Teachers, which represents public school educators in New York, praised the move, saying in a press release that “Mayor Bill de Blasio has done the right thing to protect the health and safety of our students and school communities.” But everyone agrees it will come with more challenges in the weeks and months ahead.

Closing schools can be necessary, but it comes with big trade-offs

In part, the delay in New York City reflects the fact that school closures come with major trade-offs. City officials had described closing the schools as a “last resort” because so many students in poverty rely on them, including about 70 percent who rely on free lunch (the schools began providing free lunch to all students, regardless of income, in 2017).

They were also concerned, as de Blasio mentioned on Sunday, about the impact on health care workers and others who provide essential services in the city; a recent study estimated that 15 percent of health care workers around the country do not have another source of child care if schools are closed. The results of the study “suggest that it is unclear if the potential contagion prevention from school closures justifies the potential loss of health care workers,” researchers Jude Bayham and Eli Fenichel wrote, according to Chalkbeat.

To try to mitigate these effects, New York City will turn some of its schools into emergency child care centers for students whose parents are in essential jobs, according to the Times.

But beyond just those workers, the move will put many of the more than 1 million parents in the New York City school system in a difficult position: expected to continue doing their jobs with no one to care for their kids. Unlike many states in the country, New York mandates paid leave to care for a sick family member, but it doesn’t apply to all employees, nor is it designed for a situation like this, where many children are not sick but will need care for weeks or months.

Districts around the country have had to balance these problems with the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In Los Angeles, for example, the teachers union called for school closures on Thursday as a proactive step, though no students had yet tested positive for the virus. The district announced on Friday that it would close for at least two weeks. Resource centers where students can get meals, however, will remain open.

Meanwhile, rural districts have to think about the challenges of serving students who may be geographically isolated. In Wyoming, for example, the governor has recommended all schools be closed through the first week in April, and many districts have followed that advice. But the state’s superintendent of public instruction told NPR that the district is thinking about ways that bags of food could be transported to low-income students in rural areas while schools are closed.

The potential duration of school closures is another major issue. The CDC has said that school closures of under four weeks likely will not have a meaningful effect on the spread of the virus. In fact, the CDC is somewhat equivocal on whether school closures are effective at all, stating that closures of 8 to 20 weeks may have some effect, but that other interventions like hand-washing and isolation are more effective, according to the Washington Post.

However, the slow speed of testing in New York and around the country has hampered efforts to isolate the sick. At schools, that means it’s unclear who is sick at any given time, and whether teachers and students are ever safe.

Overall, experts, teachers, and parents alike recognize that school closures, both in New York and elsewhere, are an incomplete and uncertain way to fight coronavirus spread. And yet, at this point in the pandemic, without widespread and adequate testing, many say they are necessary. They have also exposed their own set of problems, from food insecurity to a lack of paid leave for parents, that will take more than an order by a mayor to solve.

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