School Closures: Is This The Right Solution?

Last week Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers ordered the shutdown of all K – 12 schools in the state starting this Wednesday, March 18th. Some school districts had already announced voluntary closures starting today. And given other closures around the nation, the governor’s action wasn’t a big surprise.

“Closing our schools is not a decision I made lightly, but keeping our kids, our educators, our families, and our communities safe is a top priority as we continue our work to respond to and prevent further spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin,” Evers said.

But is closing all of the schools going to have far more negative effects on the state than the apparent beneficial ones that we all anticipate. And it is going in impact one million Wisconsin students.

“Kids and families across Wisconsin often depend on our schools to access food and care,” he continued. “We are going to continue working to do everything we can to ensure kids and families have the resources and support they need while schools are closed.”

One of the issues around school closings is the number of students who are eligible for free breakfast and lunch. These may provide much of their total daily nutrition if their family struggles with food availability at home. The Milwaukee Public School system has opened a number of schools as lunch sites during the closure but that still puts the onus on strapped parents getting their children to what may be far more distant locations. And do smaller school districts have the wherewithal to do this?

Part of the disparities in education between those who do well and those who don’t is a stressful or dysfunctional home life. The structure and security of the school day provides a respite from that stress. Putting kids back into that environment with the added stress of food insecurity and maybe issues with day care might be doing some real long lasting harm.

And there is discussion in education circles about the loss of reading and math skills during summer vacations. It is often cited as support for a longer school year or year round schools. How will this disruption affect students?

And what about day care? If a parent is able to secure commercial day care, how long can they afford it? Will those facilities become overworked and overburdened? Will they be able to provide safe and secure care? And isn’t this essentially just as dangerous to the spread of COVID-19 as a school situation? My hunch is it provides less protection than an organized school.

More likely, the parents will have to hustle to find someone to care for their children. Many of them won’t be able to work from home…how do they juggle day care vs. employment? Do they risk losing their employment if they need to stay home? Will the coronavirus bill currently under discussion in Washington actually provide cover for parents who can’t afford to quit working while having children at home who need day care? And given the suggestions that the elderly stay at home and self-quarantine (in the US people 65+, in Europe 70+), can we safely rely in grandparents for child care?

And there aren’t many other options left for family educational entertainment as the zoo, museums, and public libraries close.

Some have suggested that school systems provide support and educational materials via the internet. That may work for some more affluent districts or in most districts with families who have access to the internet, but that’s not everybody. Particularly in school systems like Milwaukee and Racine. And with the public libraries closing, the availability of computer resources there as a back up doesn’t exist either.

And this may become a moot point as we see more and more small businesses closing…but what will be the repercussions to business as their employees opt to stay home to care for children? Will everyone be able to work around the needs of business and childcare? Will the House bill provide enough financial relief to make this work? And what about employees who don’t have much flexibility in staying home? Like doctors, nurses, police, fire and other necessary civic employees?

We as a society aren’t really prepared to handle all of ramifications of what seems a straight forward and sound safety decision. I am not saying that the governor made the wrong the decision. But this all shows how interdependent we all are and how society and economics depend on the health of the general populace. As this starts to subside, the United States really needs to begin a serious discussion on health care, preparedness, paid sick leave and child care leave policies, and general universal support systems when unexpected things like pandemics pop up. And the response mechanism should be really robust and not necessarily reliant on the benevolence of the occupant of the Oval Office.


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