What Could Happen if the Coronavirus Closed Schools for Days, Weeks, or Even Months
We can get a sense of what to expect from Hong Kong, where students have already been out of school for more than a month.
On Wednesday afternoon, Pete Lewis—the superintendent of the public-school district of the small town of Colville, in the northeast corner of Washington State—was awaiting the test result that would determine whether Colville schools would stay closed for a fourth consecutive day.
Over the previous weekend, administrators had received word that a member of the Colville School District community was being tested for the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19 (for privacy reasons, Lewis did not specify whether it was a student, staff member, or another affiliated person). After consulting with health officials, Lewis and his colleagues decided on Sunday night to close the schools starting Monday, until further notice. Colville schools’ staff and their 1,700 K–12 students stayed home while the schools—as well as administrative buildings, buses, and other vehicles and properties associated with the school district—underwent a two-day deep cleaning.
On Wednesday, the cleaning process had been completed, and Lewis was sitting in his recently disinfected office, waiting for the call. “We’re at the mercy of waiting for those results,” he said. In the meantime, he was thinking through the logistics of getting student-athletes back to practice. If negative test results came in soon enough, he reasoned, perhaps some could be back on the field later that afternoon.
As of Thursday morning, the novel coronavirus had spread to more than 80 countries, and roughly a dozen countries have reported widespread school closures that aim to help contain the spread of the disease. Globally, more than 290 million children between preschool and 12th grade have been dismissed from school due to COVID-19, some for weeks now.
Lewis eventually got the result he was hoping for, and schools in Colville reopened on Thursday. But while Colville’s closure was brief, if the virus becomes more widespread in the U.S. it’s likely that many areas will see longer-term closures. This is what is currently happening in Hong Kong, where an abundance of caution has kept schools closed for more than a month already, with no reopening in sight. Gabriel Leung, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and the dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, who traveled as part of the World Health Organization delegation to China last month, said that there was still no definitive answer yet on whether closing schools is an effective measure against the spread of the virus, but “we cannot afford to be wrong. If there is any doubt, let us go with the more conservative option to protect children and protect the more general population,” he told reporters in Hong Kong on Friday.
Colville’s schools were some of the first in the United States to confront a question that schools in Hong Kong and other high-transmission areas have been grappling with for some time already: What happens—to students, to parents, to a community—when school is canceled indefinitely? We’ll walk through what’s likely to happen in several scenarios—if schools close for days, weeks, months, or even a year.
Three days in
When American schools have closed for a few days due to the coronavirus, logistical hassles have ensued—but, for the most part, educators and administrators have been adequately equipped to handle them. After a few days of canceled classes, the Colville School District was treating its lost days like snow days: Students would not have to make up for lost class time, Lewis explained, unless the school closure lasted long enough that Colville would not meet the state-mandated minimum number of days in the school year. (In that case, the district would plan to push back the last day of school further into the summer.) The start of the spring sports season, however, was delayed as a result of the closures. On Thursday the district’s website announced that the board of directors would be meeting on Friday to approve a special Sunday makeup practice for March 8.
Two weeks in
After two weeks away from school, kids in the United States would be considerably behind schedule in their learning curricula—and many parents in the U.S. would be acutely inconvenienced without the daily meal service and child care that school inherently provides.
A response guide for school administrators published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises schools that dismiss students to avoid the spread of COVID-19 to “implement e-learning plans, including digital and distance learning options as feasible and appropriate,” and to “consider ways to distribute food to students” that won’t facilitate too much interpersonal contact—like meal delivery and grab-and-go lunches for pickup. That said, not every school can realistically provide remote learning or meal service during a closure.
Becky Droter, the district school nurse for Colville, explained that while Colville schools were closed this week, the duty to continue providing meal service took a back seat to the urgency of stopping the spread of germs. “If we’re going to work on social distancing, we can’t really do meal service, as much as we’d like to,” Droter said. “We understand that breakfast and lunch are essential for many of our families. We have a high percentage of poverty-level families in our district. It just doesn’t work for social distancing.”
Schools’ ability to successfully implement online instruction varies widely, and e-learning would present a monumental challenge for Colville. As a school district in a rural part of the state, Lewis said, “broadband is a huge issue for us.” Students who live high on hills or deep in the valleys of northeast Washington can’t always rely on good Wi-Fi signals, and about 30 percent of the student population has no internet at home. “Some of our teachers don’t have internet, so they would [also] struggle to get that information to their kids,” he said. Other families in the district can’t afford the exorbitant price of the data usage it would require to receive assignments and send in homework every day. “It’s just one of those things where we’ve been thinking about, How can we do this if we have to?” Lewis said on Wednesday, before school opened up again. “I don’t have a great solution yet.”
The sudden, forced transition to online-based learning in Hong Kong has proved to be a struggle for both teachers and students, Ip Kin-Yuen, a lawmaker who represents Hong Kong’s education sector, said. The city had previous experience with lengthy school closures: In 2003 the territory was badly hit by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), nearly 300 people died, and classes were suspended for around six weeks. Seventeen years later, new technology and increased internet connectivity have made things easier, but there still have been many difficulties.
Distance teaching greatly limits a teacher’s toolbox. Lesson plans drawn up for the classroom, which may include partner work or hands-on projects, do not necessarily translate well to online teaching. Ip said younger students are generally more engaged, but with older students remote lessons risk becoming “one-way indoctrination,” with teachers lecturing while the students get distracted. One parent, a university professor, said she worried about her young son spending so much time in front of a computer screen. “He no longer knows what outside looks like,” she said.
The challenges are more pronounced for low-income families who do not have computers, or who have one computer but multiple children who need to use it. Some students, Ip said, are sensitive about their economic situation and uncomfortable letting their peers or teachers see inside their home lives. As some parents return to work, he worries that the divides between families of different income levels will worsen.
One month in
After a month away from their usual school routines, American students would be even further behind schedule in their yearly curricula—and at this point, their performance on standardized tests and entrance exams for the following year could be in jeopardy. Indeed, now that Hong Kong’s schools have been closed for more than a month, some students have expressed concern over their Diploma of Secondary Education Exams, the tests used to gain entrance to local universities. The tests are scheduled to begin later this month. Two student groups this week urged the Education Bureau to postpone the exams, saying the current arrangements pose “great danger to students’ health.” Officials have said the exams will go ahead on March 27, though certain components, like Chinese speaking and music, will be delayed until May.
As of 2015, American students were estimated to take about eight standardized tests every year. Although U.S. schools have reportedly backed off of this kind of testing slightly since the mid-2010s, standardized tests remain a regular part of students’ and educators’ lives, as well as a key ingredient in the assessment of schools’ performance. Obviously, a month away from classes, or an abrupt shift to online learning, could jeopardize students’ performance on these tests.
The U.S. Department of Education has not yet issued any COVID-19-specific guidance on how to handle test preparation or testing, and declined to comment on the record about this or any other matters. Lewis said before Colville’s schools reopened that this was “not a radar item yet” because the district’s next standardized test was still a few months away. Precedent exists, however, for exempting students from standardized testing in extraordinary circumstances. In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, for instance, some students were granted an exemption from standardized tests that May.
Two, three, or even six months in
In the United States, little planning is in place at the federal level for the scenario in which coronavirus concerns result in prolonged school closures. The Department of Education reports from this past week suggest that senators have been urging the department to issue more guidance. The situation in Hong Kong, though, could provide a glimpse into what the United States could look like a few months from now.
Hong Kong’s school closures will stretch well into next month and possibly beyond. For Justin Fok, 12, and his sister Josie, 11, the weeks spent at home with their father, whose workplace ordered him to work from home, have grown boring. Both said they missed their classmates and friends. Josie’s school launched a new e-learning platform this week, but the virtual classroom filled up quickly; even though she logged on 15 minutes early, Josie didn’t get a spot and planned to try again next week. Adding to the other annoyances, their apartment block is undergoing renovations. Every few minutes, the sound of drilling and hammering echoes through the flat.
But there were some upsides. Freed from wearing a school uniform, Justin opted for cartoon-covered pajama pants and hoodie as he edited a video for a project on Friday afternoon. Josie said she was enjoying sleeping in, with a commute of just a few feet from her bedroom to her small desk.
When asked if he had any advice for students in other countries who may soon be confined to home, Justin offered a word of caution. Students learned early on that they could shut their cameras off in order to walk away from their computers without their teachers noticing, he said. But recently, teachers had grown wise to these tactics and caught students off guard by springing a surprise attendance check in the middle of class. “Many students were already gone,” Justin said. “The teachers are so smart.”
One year in
If school closures extend past the six-month mark, or perhaps even reach a full year, it’s not clear what will happen. State education departments and the U.S. Education Department would almost certainly have to begin developing protocols for how to make up standardized tests or otherwise assess the performances of schools and students. In districts where remote learning has been difficult or impossible, school districts would probably need to develop summer school–like remedial curricula to help students catch up. Some students might have to repeat grades when school recommenced, resulting in entire regional cohorts of students who would be older than their classmates nationally for the rest of their academic lives.
At this stage, of course, all one can do is speculate; at present, there is no urgent need for protocols like these to actually be in place stateside. But Hong Kong’s example provides a valuable insight: If American schools close due to the coronavirus, it’s possible, and even likely, that students will be seriously set back by so much time away from the classroom.
Rachel Cheung contributed reporting.