Classrooms will be empty from coast to coast in the coming weeks as the novel coronavirus spreads and officials say indefinite closures are a real possibility.
If schools were to shut down long term, one of the greatest challenges for teachers, officials and school administrators would come down to ensuring all students have equal education opportunities and that their food and housing security is not put in jeopardy.
More than 1.5 million public school students in the United States experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a recent report by the National Center for Homeless Education. Many more students are considered underserved.
School officials have announced short-term closures – from a couple of days to five weeks – in hopes of mitigating the spread of the disease.
But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said those shorter-term closures will likely make little difference and said that closing schools for eight weeks or more might be more effective.
Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of school administrations and local health officials, according to the CDC’s coronavirus guidelines for schools.
Students could be scrambling to eat
When Washington’s largest school district announced that students will have to stay home, Lashana Williams started raising money to cook oatmeal and eggs for them.
“It’s not fancy, but it’s the best that we can do,” said Williams, a massage therapist in Seattle, who is giving students breakfast at a coffee shop in the city’s South Park neighborhood. “We are not in a neighborhood with enormous means but we do have the means to take care of each other.”
The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the country’s school nutrition programs, says more than 20 million students rely on free school meals each day. Many children and teens eat breakfast and lunch at school because their families can’t afford food for their entire families.
In an effort to continue feeding students, the federal government is allowing schools that usually serve meals during the summer months to feed students during the emergency closures. But experts say that may not be enough.
The problem is that a considerably lesser number of meals are offered when students are on summer break. Only about 2.6 million children get meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, one of two programs created to feed students during the summer months. Figures for the National School Lunch Program’s Seamless Summer Option were not immediately available.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, said the group is pushing federal officials to relax more rules amid the pandemic and make sure children are fed.
Many schools and groups are not “quite eligible” to be part of those summer programs but they still serve children in need. The churches, parks and unused schools approved to distribute meals in the summer must be in areas where at least half of the children come from low-income families.
The reality is that “needy students live in all communities,” Pratt-Heavner said.
So far, the USDA has approved some changes through June 30 in several states, such as Washington and California, allowing students to pick up their food and go home instead of eating in “congregate feeding” sites.
Even if the schools provide the meals, it’s unclear whether all students who need them can travel to pick them up. Some schools plan to deliver a limited amount of meals door-to-door but Williams said community members “can’t wait for the big machine to do the work.”
Online classes are on the rise but not every home has a computer
Randy Huybers spent the week measuring and mixing chemicals in front of a camera in an empty classroom at Woodinville High School.
The chemistry teacher’s students can’t attend the suburban Seattle school but they have been watching and interacting with him from home.
“I was very anxious (at first) but I was amazed at the kids’ responses and how human it felt to interact with them through the screen,” Huybers told CNN.
Huybers and his colleagues at the Northshore school district have been able to fully implement distance learning. Many other schools in the country have similar capabilities, are using video conference platforms such as Zoom and are getting teachers ready for online teaching.
Katy Payne, a spokeswoman with the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said most schools in the state can’t follow Northshore’s lead and the agency is advising against trying to implement a full online curriculum on short notice.
Just a few miles away, the 53,000 students part of Seattle Public Schools are not switching to online classes because not all of them have internet access or a computer..
“If we can’t provide that online learning for all of our students … it’s not fair to do it (only) for some students,” Tim Robinson, a spokesman for the school district.
In rural Tennessee, Melissa Ryckman, an associate professor of history at Martin Methodist College, said some of her students rely on the library’s computers to write their papers.
“I have students who don’t have internet at their house unless the trees are bare because they’re using a satellite dish,” Ryckman said.
As many as 12 million school-aged children live in homes without broadband access, according to a 2017 report by the US Congress Joint Economic Committee.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has argued the government must do more to encourage internet providers to build in less-profitable areas, such as rural and low-income districts.
As schools announced the closings, students were sent home with workbooks, instructional packets and even with borrowed laptops and WiFi hotspots.
In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District is teaming up with public television stations to broadcast educational shows on three channels.
The district, the largest in California, estimates half of its students don’t have computers or tablets, and 25% of them don’t have access to internet at home.
While the outcome for students who can’t take online classes remains unknown, some experts say distance learning may still pose challenges for younger children who have the tools.
Teachers would need to lean on parents to guide younger children to type and use the software or simply make sure they pay attention to the lessons.
“It’s going to be very difficult to have a youngster sitting by the computer for a five-, six- or seven-hour school day with a teacher, engaging in activities,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators during a discussion at The Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.
Student testing is in limbo
The pandemic is delaying standardized testing for current and prospective students at schools across the country. It could have an impact on college admissions and how academic achievement is measured.
Test scores count for more than just a letter grade for a school. In some states, they are used to evaluate teachers, leading to salary raises and bonuses.
Last week, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued guidance for elementary and secondary schools and said the department may consider waiving federal assessment requirements.
Each state will have to decide whether to cancel or delay the tests. Some schools have suggested they could be extending the school year and use snow days that had been built into their calendars.
In Texas, state lawmakers called for the cancellation of the state’s assessment program for the current school year, saying students should have time to receive the required instruction time without having to extend the school year. The Texas Education Agency has said it will issue formal guidance later this week.
Meanwhile in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has said he’s discussing options with educators.
“We’re not going to let testing get in the way of life,” DeWine said, according to CNN affiliate WSYX reported. “If we can’t have testing this year, we can’t have testing this year. The world will not come to an end.”
Colleges and universities could see a dip in enrollment if domestic and international students are not able to take their SAT and ACT tests.
More than 100 testing centers in the United States opted to not administer the SAT test scheduled for last weekend. The College Board said “a high number” of the cancellations were due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Outside the US, testing for the SAT was canceled in at least 30 countries and students were issued full refunds, College Board said.
With many public schools closing, it’s unclear whether the ACT test scheduled for April 4 will take place at the around 4,000 tests sites in the country. An ACT spokesman said they are closely monitoring the situation but were prepared for unexpected scheduling changes.
“We’ve had test centers damaged by tornadoes, hurricanes and fires that have led to cancellations. Sometimes test centers will lose power, have a gas leak or be flooded following a water main break, resulting in a cancellation. Each situation may be handled differently, but we generally try to set up a reschedule date at the soonest possible date,” said Ed Colby, a spokesman for the ACT.
Choosing the right school and completing admission requirements may be difficult for some students.
“If there’s no one on campus to meet with them, is that the right environment for them to see what the college experience will be like?” said Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University.
The closures could prevent current students from getting their diplomas because some courses, such as science and performing arts, can’t be completed online.
CNN’s Arman Azad, Brian Fung, Omar Jimenez, Julia Jones and Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.