As Schools Look for Guidance, Educators Are Left Asking, ‘What?’

WASHINGTON — With their doors closed, their reopening dates in flux and their promised “distance learning” offerings in doubt, the nation’s school administrators are pleading with the federal government for guidance to respond to the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

More than half the states have shut down all their schools for two to six weeks, and some state leaders have begun to predict that their schools will remain closed for the remainder of the year. But so far, instructions from the federal government have been contradictory and inconclusive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended hygiene. Then it advised against gatherings of more than 50 people, hours before President Trump lowered that to 10 for the next two weeks, with a vague call for home schooling where possible.

“If you can’t have groups of more than 10 congregated, how the hell are you going to keep schools open with hundreds, if not thousands, of people?” asked Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Anxiety boiled over on Tuesday after C.D.C. officials abruptly canceled a conference call with more than 2,000 superintendents from across the country who were awaiting clarity.

By Wednesday, 91,000 U.S. public and private schools had closed or were scheduled to close, affecting at least 41.7 million school students, according to Education Week. The nation’s largest teachers’ unions have thrown their support behind nationwide shutdowns.

Districts that have closed for several weeks are already looking at extensions. Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, who led the parade of state leaders who shut down their systems, said he would not be surprised if his schools did not reopen this year. Maryland’s state superintendent also signaled that its two-week closure was likely to be extended. And Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas, a Democrat, was the first to make the call, announcing on Tuesday that the state’s elementary and secondary schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year.

Such decisions are being made without the guidance of the federal government. Superintendents are deploying across their districts to check on distribution sites where low-income students and their families can pick up free meals that would have been served in their schools. Others are organizing makeshift internet cafes in school buses so students can gain access to digital learning.

But in the long term, administrators do not know what to expect. Superintendents are wondering if their schools will be turned into hospitals, maybe even homeless shelters. And as they contemplate transitioning to online classes — which the vast majority of schools are not equipped to do — they are worried about lawsuits or the loss of federal funding if they cannot provide the same level of education to all students, as required by law.

At least one school system, Northshore School District in Washington, announced that it would “pause” its online learning, while officials “continue to address challenges related to state and federal expectations that could result in a loss of critical funding.”

Of particular concern for districts is guidance from the Education Department informing districts that they do not have to provide special education services to students if they are not educating the general population. Advocates contend the department’s guidance is causing unnecessary tension in communities.

“We’re already seeing people blaming special education kids for schools not providing anything,” said Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance at the National Center for Youth Law. “This would be a moment for an administration to step up, show leadership and gather all of the examples of how things could be done.”

Special education students are also top of mind for state superintendents, according to the organization representing the school leaders. The superintendents say they expect special education guidance to be clarified by federal officials. State leaders are also eagerly awaiting expedited waivers from mandated standardized testing, but they are just as focused on issues like how to issue diplomas to graduating seniors.

Carissa Moffat Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents, said her members also want clearer federal guidance but urged “a little forgiveness” for the C.D.C. as information on the pandemic’s course changes hourly.

“Looking forward, we know the cascading consequences of this crisis won’t go away when the spread of the virus eventually stops,” she said. “There will be equity implications, states and school systems will face huge costs, accountability systems will have to be changed and modified, and there will inevitably be questions that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The C.D.C. did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2009, amid the H1N1 swine flu outbreak, the C.D.C. discouraged school closures. The former head of the agency, Dr. Tom Frieden, said in an opinion article on Monday that the coronavirus closures may have been premature.

“We must consider the huge societal costs of closing schools against what may be little or no health benefit — particularly if kids continue to go out and are increasingly cared for by grandparents and others who are vulnerable,” he wrote.

On Friday, the C.D.C. advised vaguely that “there is a role for school closure in response to school-based cases of Covid-19 for decontamination and contact tracing,” but that many of the two- to six-week closures that had already been announced by hundreds of school districts would not curb the virus. The agency said that eight- to 20-week closures might help curb transmission, but possibly only as much as hand washing. That was after its initial guidance told schools that they should consider closing for two to five days if they had a confirmed case.

The agency’s most consistent message has been an emphasis on local decision-making.

“We understand the appropriate concern with acknowledging the importance of state and local leadership in decisions about school closure,” the AASA said in a statement. But, the association added, that “makes it even more critical that upon reviewing available federal information and recommendations, local leaders aren’t left asking, ‘What?’”

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