School leaders are facing some difficult decisions as coronavirus concerns grow in Massachusetts, with Gov. Charlie Baker declaring a public health emergency Tuesday afternoon. Among the most daunting is the idea of closing, especially for extended periods of time. So far, schools in Massachusetts have opted to close temporarily for a day or more to allow cleaning crews to thoroughly disinfect facilities.
Plainville and Arlington are the most recent districts to announce temporary closures. Both towns shut down at least one elementary school for the day on Monday to investigate infection reports and disinfect after tests came back positive for COVID-19 among their student and parent communities.
Officials with Plymouth Public Schools made a similar move last week. They shut down all 12 district schools on Friday for disinfection efforts after a student reported flu-like symptoms after returning from a school trip to Milan, Italy.
"Things went as well as can be expected with our cleaning," said superintendent Gary Maestas. "We really wanted to ensure our schools would be prepared for the start of school in the event we had a positive case."
That suspected case ultimately came back negative. Still, Maestas believes the temporary closures and cleaning effort was the right move. For now.
"I think we really followed the letter of the guidance that was provided to us," he said. "Here we are today. Things might change tomorrow. You never know."
And in some ways things did change Tuesday afternoon with the emergency declaration. According to Baker's statements, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley is now strongly urging all districts to cancel any out of state travel. That's in addition to the state's original advice on March 5th to cancel international school trips. There was also advice on large group gatherings.
"We think large gatherings are probably not a great idea," said Baker at the afternoon press conference. "If you're gonna do them, you should pursue the recommendations of the Department of Public Health and the local boards of health."
Also for accountability purposes, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will shift they way they calculate chronic absenteeism by disregarding missed days after March 2nd.
Maestas said while the school districts like his have had experience trying to mitigate the spread of infections like the flu or the norovirus (which causes vomiting and diarrhea), this situation is different.
"I think the difference here is the unknown," he explained, pointing to the fact that there's still a lot that health officials don't know about this virus like why most children appear to be at the lowest risk of severe cases of the coronavirus.
But the idea of a longer closure isn't completely off the table for Maestas and other Massachusetts education leaders.
This is a day by day event in terms of people watching this and seeing how this evolves.Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents
Studies show there can be real benefits to closing schools. According to mathematical model published in the journal Nature in 2006, communities that close schools after a moderately transmissible virus is present in the area can reduce the total number of cases by 26%.
A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examining the 1918 influenza pandemic showed similar results. Schools closed in 43 American cities after the first case of influenza was confirmed in the community. According to the research, cities that waited longer to close schools experienced significantly higher death rates among its larger population than cities that shut schools sooner. When it comes to the coronavirus public health experts are still trying to determine the exact mortality rate.
"The way that works is not only by removing transmission between kids at the school and reducing the mixing of adults that come to the school, but also by paradoxically requiring the parents to stay home," explained Nicholas Christakis a physician and expert in social contagion at Yale University. He said school closures are an extremely effective way to reduce the amount of adult interaction.
Right now, the plans among school districts in the state are fluid. School systems are in a state of constant communication. On Friday, about 800 leaders from district and private schools participated in a conference call with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Public Health, according to state estimates.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has posted information on its website with links to local and national health departments like the Centers for Disease Control. They've also highlighted state policies like how to treat missed school days.
So far though, state officials are leaving it up to local authorities to make decisions on whether to close schools.
"As you can imagine, this is a day by day event in terms of people watching this and seeing how this evolves," said Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
Scott said the superintendents in his organization have a lot of questions. To help, his group is working as a conduit between districts and state health officials, passing along frequently asked questions and organizing systems for communication.
Among the biggest topics of conversation are travel and how to approach canceling field trips. Scott said the state's recent advice about large gatherings will "likely result in many events being postponed or cancelled." And there are are a lot of questions about the administration of MCAS, with some tests scheduled to begin this month. State officials have not weighed in yet on that.
But mostly, Scott said school systems are hungry for more clear cut guidance.
"They would love to have more sort of scenarios about what actions should be taken based on circumstances that evolve," he said. "But at the moment that seems to be more local decision making. We’re pushing to have as much concrete information coming from the [Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services] as we can get."
Scott explained that, in lieu of specific directions, many districts are relying on each other for advice, which the superintendents association is also helping to facilitate. The organization recently set up a listserve and created a shared file on Google Drive to help superintendents communicate with each other.
"They’re sharing the decisions they’re making, resources they’ve collected, communications they’ve written," he added. "So that superintendents get a chance to see what’s happening in districts across the state."
Officials with Brockton Public Schools said it has been very helpful.
"All of us are learning from each other in this fluid situation," said Jess Hodges, a spokesperson for the district.
Hodges said department heads at Brockton schools are meeting weekly and are in constant communication via email to make sure they're on top of the latest developments. So far, the district's efforts have mostly been preventative. They've poured a lot of resources into regularly sanitizing hard surfaces because Brockton school leaders consider closures to be a last resort.
"We really want to keep kids in school," said Hodges. "The reason for that is not just to keep them focused but also we know there are challenges for working families to get day care and we also recognize that a lot of our students are low income and they rely on the free breakfast and lunch that we provide."
But she explained district leaders are also making contingency plans if things escalate. The food services department, for example, is working through a plan that would allow them to continue to provide food to students that need it.
Plymouth Public Schools, superintendent Gary Maestas added, the other big challenge is communication with the community. Since last week, he estimates that he's fielded about 300 phone calls from parents who want to share specific concerns and suggestions or have questions about the district's plans.
While this isn't Maestas' first time navigating through a threat of infectious disease -- he was also in a school leadership role in 2009 when the H1N1 influenza sickened more than 500 people in Massachusetts — this situation feels a lot more challenging.
"One of the things that is so different with this situation, the coronavirus, versus other [infection outbreaks] is the massive overflow of information through social media," he said. "It’s very difficult when you get 5,000 armchair quarter backs telling you this is what you should do."
This segment aired on March 10, 2020.