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Providing Child Care During Coronavirus School Closures a Tough Question

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Should school districts that have closed to help stem the coronavirus outbreak offer child care for certain students, particularly those whose parents are health-care professionals?

It's a question that many superintendents and policymakers are grappling with now, as tens of thousands of schools have closed their doors for at least several weeks. There's a public-health concern to leaving even just a few school buildings open, although some preliminary research suggests that there's also a significant cost to leaving health-care workers without child care. 

Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest school district, had planned to open 40 family resource centers to provide meals and child care, but called off the idea on Monday due to health and safety concerns. Superintendent Austin Beutner had initially pitched the idea as a safe place for students to go to "have a warm meal, engage with their peers, and pursue their different studies." Visitors were to have their temperature checked before entering the centers.

But on Monday, Beutner wrote in a letter to families that state and local health and public safety officials could not assure the safety of children or staff. Although "many thousands of employees" had signed up to work at the centers, Beutner said, the plan was just too risky. 

"I cannot ask anyone to work at one of the centers, or open them to children, unless we can be assured of their safety," Beutner wrote. (The district will still operate 60 centers where each student can pick up two meals daily.)

A few days beforehand, California Gov. Gavin Newsom told school districts to arrange for child care "to the extent practicable."

In New York City, child care—especially for the children of essential personnel—was one of the major reasons why Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed closing the nation's largest school district. Now that schools are closed through at least April 20, the city will open 100 regional enrichment centers on March 23 for "the children of first responders, health-care workers, transit workers, and our most vulnerable student populations."

City officials said there would be at least one adult and 12 students per room to maintain social distancing. The sites will provide food and remote learning.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is keeping some schools open to provide child care for health-care workers. The centers will be sanitized nightly, and a health-care professional will assess students before they enter the facility to make sure they're not exhibiting any symptoms, the district has said. Two district administrators and a police officer will also be present at each center as well.


See alsoSuperintendents on Hot Seat in Executing School Closures


In a new paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, researchers from Colorado State and Yale Universities used Census data to estimate that 15 percent of health-care providers would be in need of child care during a school closure. That could prevent them from going into work during a time when the health-care system is strained with thousands of patients reporting systems of the virus, also known as COVID-19.

"[It] is unclear if the potential contagion prevention from school closures justifies the potential loss of health-care workers from the standpoint of reducing cumulative mortality," wrote authors Jude Bayham and Eli P. Fenichel. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidance that said in areas with "substantial community spread" of the coronavirus, school closures need to last a minimum of four to eight weeks to serve as a "larger community mitigation strategy." While many school districts initially closed for two or three weeks, some officials have said they could see the closures extending through the end of the school year

However, if health-care workers have to stay home to take care of children, then school closures could "lead to a greater number of deaths than they prevent," the paper says. 

Research has found that closing U.S. schools during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic did decrease mortality rates. Even so, the CDC guidance cited risks associated with closing schools, including that there could be more transmission of illness to especially vulnerable older populations if children of working parents are put in the care of grandparents or other elders.

Bayham and Fenichel acknowledged that there's still a lot of unknowns, including how much a reduction in the health-care labor force would decrease the probability of COVID-19 patient survival. But they urge state and district leaders to consider these concerns. 

"Minimizing the impact of the COVID-19 and saving lives requires clear thinking and weighing tradeoffs," the authors wrote. "There will likely be cases when closing schools is sensible. However, policymakers and the health-care experts advising them need to understand that closing schools may have severe knock-on effects on the health-care system and that there is substantial uncertainty about the effectiveness of school closures for preventing infection beyond school children and on the impact of reduction in the health-care workforce on patient survival."

Image: In this March 7 file photo, a swing sits empty on a playground outside Achievement First charter school in Providence, R.I. The school closed due to a coronavirus scare. —David Goldman/AP

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