Dispatch from Seattle v2: On closing schools

One of the first impactful things to happen in response to the COVID virus is the closing of schools.

It’s impacting families, school districts and the transmission of the disease itself.

Here in Seattle, America’s epicenter of the disease, there have been some notable lessons learned about school closures over the last few weeks that are worth considering as other states implement similar models.

 

First, closing down schools and sending kids home is a tough decision to make. However, once made, it seems like a no-brainer.

To limit transmission, we need to limit social gatherings of any type. Schools are petri dishes for transmission. Moreover, public health officials are starting to hypothesize that, at least in the Seattle area experience, that the younger the infected individual, the more likely they are to be asymptomatic. In other words, the virus masks itself among younger infected individuals by showing no symptomos, and therefore can’t be tracked as easily. This allows for the potential of widely spread disease without a clear ability to trace that spread.

 

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So, once one understands the gravity of the situation ahead, closing schools make a lot of sense.

But before that decision is made at a state level, things are far more foggy. Individual school districts have to weigh the real costs of closing versus unknown benefits themselves.

In Puget Sound, the schools that closed ahead of the statewide closure directed by Gov. Jay Inslee did so primarily based upon two characteristics.

One was a shortage of workers. In the Northshore School District, which was the first district to close, they did so because the superintendent deemed it too dangerous to operate the school with inadequate staffing. A number of their staff were over 60 years old with comorbid conditions. So, as high risk individuals, they were allowed to stay home to avoid catching the disease.

That led to a situation that was unsafe as a result of the enormous number of staff that were staying at home, according to the superintendent. They shut their doors on March 4th, a full 8 days before Gov. Inslee directed that Seattle-area schools be closed on March 12th.

So, COVID can hit a region’s workforce, forcing closures and a change to your operations, before a wave of sickness hits or state leaders take action.

 

The second noteworthy characteristic is that those schools that are better able to migrate to online learning platforms were more likely to close ahead of the governor’s announcement.

At King’s Schools, a private K-12 education institution, the organization was able to cancel school and pretty quickly migrate to online learning.  Students are now operating in a learning environment that includes structured video conferencing and a schedule that largely mimics the time spent previously in the classroom.

They continue with a high functioning classroom environment in an online setting. They closed schools on March 10th. They must have had a plan in place to migrate quickly to the online environment.

Holy Rosary School in Edmonds, Washington, also announced school closure shortly prior to Inslee’s announcement. Comapared to Kings, Holy Rosary is less high tech. They operate an online setting through a traditional email system with some modest applications in support. They are not utilizing a platform or tool like Zoom or Blackboard.

In that instance, kids end up being done with class material by noon, if not earlier.  Lacking a more comprehensive infrastructure has made the migration to online learning a little less efficacious than the experience at Kings. Holy Rosary made the decision to move to an online format a day after King’s but a few days ahead of Inslee’s directive.

 

Third, if you’re leaving these decisions to close schools up to principals or superintendents, you’re probably leaving the decision up to the wrong person.

Generally speaking, superintendents aren’t trained to be thinking in this disruptive of a manner. They often are adept at dealing within broad bureaucratic cultures and mechanisms. They aren’t usually experienced at making more entrepreneurial decisions like figuring out a new model of education in an online platform.  Moreover, they generally are risk averse given the nature of a school district. And, the idea of closing down a district seems very high risk before it’s made, even if it appears low risk afterwards, as discussed above.

So, leaving these big political, cultural and educational decisions to a superintendent is not likely to deliver a proactive, thoughtful answer in a timely way.

These are appear as bigger political decisions that may often get decided at a level or two above the superintendent.

 

Fourth, and finally, it’s clear that some districts may not be able to make the switch to an online environment.

The Edmonds School District has about 21,000 students in grades K-12. Following Gov. Inslee’s order to close schools, and move to an online setting, this district has stopped issuing graded homework assignments or tests.  The rationale is a sensitivity to issues of equity in the diverse suburban district.

The district recognized that the inability of some families to be able to participate in an online education program would be limited. So, rather than create penalties in the form of lower grades for kids that might not have the same resources as others, no grades would be offered for any child during this time.

As one mom put it to me, “My senior is officially done with high school.”

In reality, this means that summer break has officially begun for students – and the winter season has not yet concluded.

 

So, closing schools during this COVID outbreak is not a linear proposition if districts are left on their own. The lessons from Seattle are to ensure all schools operate on the same closing/opening timeline as possible. This may require state leaders closing schools more quickly than some might expect. Where possible, it would be useful for the state to support implementation of online learning platforms so that kids could get a full day of education. Finally, try not to let this time of “social distancing” turn into an early summer break. That’s not helpful to anyone, particulalry students that will be expected to know a thing or two as they roll into class next fall.