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Michigan, Kentucky Close Schools as Country’s Three Biggest Districts Fight Over Decision

Corona Affected American Education IN America

THE GOVERNORS OF Michigan and Kentucky are the latest to announce statewide closures of their public school systems, joining Ohio and Maryland in adopting an aggressive strategy to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"I know this will be a tough time for our parents and our educators," Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said late Thursday.

Michigan's three-week closure from March 15 until April 5, which the governor called "a necessary step to protect kids and teachers and families and our overall public health," will affect 1.5 million students across more than 800 schools.

"This is not a decision that I made lightly," she said.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear recommended all public schools close for two full weeks and the majority of schools districts are agreeing.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 10: The Pike Place Market sits virtually empty of patrons on March 10, 2020 in downtown Seattle, Washington. The historic farmer's market is Seattle's most popular tourist attraction, and business has been especially hard hit by coronavirus fears.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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"While kids are not our main risk, we do believe that they can spread the virus," he said Thursday evening. "This is a big but necessary step."

A handful of major cities announced wide-scale closures, including Austin, Texas; Denver and the District of Columbia. As of Thursday evening, at least 10,600 schools enrolling nearly 5 million students have been closed or are set to close, according to Education Week.

Meanwhile, a major debate broke out in the country's three largest school districts over whether or not officials should close the schools. The teachers union in Los Angeles pleaded with Superintendent Austin Beutner to close all schools in the LA Unified School District.

"We believe from looking at the research from other countries that have been dealing with this over the past weeks and months, that a proactive approach that gets ahead of the game rather than a reactive approach – closing schools as you find cases – proactivity is the key here," Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a press conference Thursday.

"We believe that this has been shown within other countries that a proactive approach like this actually slows the spread, flattens out the spread and makes sure health care providers are not crushed with an overwhelming demand and can actually deal with this," he said. "So we are calling on LAUSD to close all schools."

The Los Angeles school board declared a state of emergency earlier this week in order to provide Beutner the power to close the school system if he deems it necessary. Los Angeles is the country's second-largest school district and serves about 620,000 students. To date there have been no cases linked to LA schools.

Beutner is set to meet with the school board Friday morning.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the country's largest school district, Chancellor Richard Carranza also beat back calls to close the city's schools after it closed two co-located schools in the Bronx when a student enrolled there reported to school officials that he tested positive for the virus – an investigation later found that he had not tested positive.

"There are three things we want to preserve at all cost," New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said at a press conference Thursday. "Our schools, our mass transit system and most importantly, our health care system."

New York City Public Schools enrolls more than 1.1 million children, 73% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged.

"We are going to do our damndest to keep the schools open," he said.

The decision hasn't sat well with some teachers and city council members, who took to social media to voice their opposition.

"It is time to close our public schools," Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York City council, said on Twitter Friday morning. "Teaching and learning can not take place under these circumstances for the safety and well being of the teachers and students."

The situation looked similar in Chicago as well, where Illinois Gov. J.B. Prtizker issued guidance banning groups of more than 250 people from meeting but schools in the country's third-largest school district remained open.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday that Chicago Public Schools would remain open "at this time," adding that the school system would begin canceling large-scale events and would issue guidance on short-term closures in the event of a case. "We would never put our children in danger."

Members of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union were quick to criticize the decision, noting that a handful of the city's schools enroll more than a thousand children in one location. Union officials plan to meet Friday morning to address "growing concerns that CPS and the City of Chicago need to do more to protect the city's residents."

As school closures pile up and are announced for longer periods of time than the one- or two-day cancellations that have made up the majority of closures thus far, Education Department officials said that they anticipate receiving increasingly complicated requests for waivers to release affected schools from certain federal requirements, like reporting chronic absenteeism rates or potentially not administering an annual end-of-year state exam.

During a call with the Council of Chief State School Officers on Thursday, Education Press Release Distribution Service Department officials said they expect states to "make every reasonable effort" to administer annual tests but that they are open to considering one-year waivers.

Education advocates seem to be most concerned with how the 22 million students who receive free breakfast and lunch at school will continue to receive those free meals. Some schools established grab-and-go style meals at specific locations throughout a district while others were still mulling delivery options.

The Department of Agriculture gave Washington state and California the ability to provide meals on their summer schedules, and officials from the department said Thursday that it would approve within 24 hours any state or district that also wanted that option.

Another equity issue being watched as more and more school closures are announced is access to the internet.

A handful of schools have shifted or plan to shift to online learning, but most have not and will not given students' varying levels of access to technology and the internet – what education policy experts call the homework gap. About 12 million students lack internet access in their homes. Most schools and districts instead are sending students home with packets of work that cover two to three weeks worth of course material.

"We recognize this is an ever-evolving situation and that these agencies are working hard to issue guidance and provide answers as quickly as possible," Carissa Moffat Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a statement after hearing from administration officials on Thursday.

The Education News Department on Thursday released long-awaited guidance for states, school districts and schools answering major concerns they've been hearing from school officials regarding the coronavirus. The guidance includes, for example, a nine-page Q&A regarding what responsibilities districts have for students with disabilities if they close their schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also drafting specific guidance for schools, which is expected Friday.

"We are working closely with our inter-agency partners to provide state and local leaders the information they need to ensure the health and safety of their students and educators," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "We will continue to work alongside them and provide them the flexibilities they need in order to best support their communities.

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