As fear about the coronavirus has prompted colleges across the Boston area to effectively shut down, public schools for the most part continue to hold classes — at least for now — putting parents on edge about whether long-term closures might be on the horizon.
The first dose of what many fear could be a wider reality emerged Wednesday night as Boston school and health officials announced Wednesday night that the Eliot K-8 School would be closing for a week starting Thursday, because “a non-student member of the school’s community tested positive for coronavirus disease.”
More than 700 students attend the school, which has three buildings in the North End, and officials encourage everyone who has been inside those buildings to practice social distancing and avoid public places during that time.
A Boston school spokeswoman refused to say whether the “non-student member” was an employee, parent, or volunteer. A letter sent to Eliot families at 7:55 p.m. said the closure was “out of an abundance of caution.”
The abrupt closure came as some Boston families have become frustrated with the school system’s day-to-day approach in communication that has left them wondering if officials have any kind of long-term plan if a widescale closure is necessary.
For example, Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius informed families Tuesday night that school would be open the next day and noted they were closely monitoring the evolving health crisis. The brief communication, relayed by robocall and e-mail, left an impression with some families that school could be called off any day — as if they are bracing for an approaching snowstorm — and made no mention of what contingency plans the district might have in place in case such an event occurs.
“I feel like we are in a holding pattern,” said Laura Bethard of Allston, whose son is a fifth-grader. “I didn’t feel like there was a lot in the message that was informative. I understand the circumstances, but the response was underwhelming. BPS doesn’t communicate that clearly.”
Speaking to media outside City Hall Wednesday night, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was not ready to cancel school district-wide, while adding that officials were planning for that possibility.
“I don’t think we’re at that point here, yet,” he said.
School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told media that the closure of the Eliot School will allow staff to go into the school and “do the deep cleaning that’s needed.” She said the person had been in the school’s lower campus, but noted that teachers move between the three campuses.
“The safety of our students is our absolute top priority," she said.
Before the Eliot announcement, Jessica Ridlen, a school spokeswoman, said in a statement Wednesday night that if a school needs to close “we will notify the individual school community swiftly and directly.” She also defended the school system’s outreach to families, noting the district has sent out several letters and created an informational Web page. In a letter Wednesday night that was longer than the one the day before, Cassellius explained the district’s rationale for continuing classes.
“Based on the information we have today, medical experts, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Boston Public Health Commission, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health do not recommend school closures in Boston at this time,” she wrote.
Across the nation, more than 1,200 schools have closed or are slated to close for reasons related to the coronavirus, according to a running tally by Education Week. In one of the biggest moves, the Seattle Public Schools announced on Wednesday it would close for two weeks beginning Thursday. The Seattle area has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
In Massachusetts, more than a dozen public and private schools have closed, typically for a day of deep cleaning, either because a staff member, student, or parent has tested presumptive positive for COVID-19 or out of an abundance of caution because someone recently returned from regions, like China and Italy, that have been at the epicenter of the outbreak.
In Winchester Wednesday night, officials announced that the Ambrose School would be closed Thursday for deep cleaning.
The Plymouth Public Schools canceled classes last Friday to disinfect all buildings and buses after a student who returned from a school trip to Italy was taken to the hospital with flu-like symptoms, officials said. The student ultimately did not test positive, but the episode has officials thinking about what they would do if the outbreak reached their community, said Superintendent Gary E. Maestas.
“That’s the biggest dilemma we have," said Maestas, who noted he has received some criticism from parents about the one-day closure. “I hear parents telling me that I should have closed the district indefinitely.”
But with no one in the schools or the town diagnosed with the virus at this time, Maestas said such a move was unnecessary, though he said he would cancel school and quarantine students if there was a credible risk in the community.
State education officials have already begun to take steps to help districts prepare for prolonged school closures in case the need arises. The efforts have focused primarily on ensuring that impoverished students would still have access to free meals. One waiver being sought from the federal government would allow schools in areas of high food insecurity to continue to serve meals at school, while another waiver would allow schools to hand out “grab-and-go” meals if students needed to keep a distance from one another to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Walsh told CNN Wednesday that the city of Boston is grappling with such issues as how to provide food to poor students who rely on schools for breakfasts and lunches, as well as conducting lessons online.
But meals are only the tip of the iceberg. Maryalice Foisy, president of the Massachusetts PTA, said she has been hearing from concerned parents across the state about the hardships large-scale closures could create. Parents whose jobs do not offer paid time off and cannot work from home may have to scramble to find child care.
“The child care factor is tough for parents,” Foisy said. “It’s scary to send a child to day care, but if you have to go to work, what do you do with your children all day if they’re not in school? This affects an awful lot of people.”
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said calling off school for an extended period of time should be a last resort, particularly in districts that serve a large number of low-income children. He pointed out that schools play a critical role in the well-being of those students, such as providing them with free lunches and, in many cases, free breakfasts too.
“A lot of school leaders are worried about whether kids would have a safe place to be during what should be their school day,” he said.
He also said there is a big differences between the daily life of students in public schools versus those in colleges: Students in kindergarten through Grade 12 attend school for only a portion of the day while many of those in college live in large dormitories, take classes in big lecture halls, and mingle with wider groups of people in a variety of buildings.
Lisa Graustein of Dorchester, who has a fifth-grader in the school system, turned to social media on Wednesday to raise money for a food drive to help food-insecure students in the event of a school closure. So far, she has raised more than $2,000, and she and other parents plan to deliver the food — nonperishable items like rice, beans, oatmeal, and granola bars — to some Dorchester schools on Friday.
“I wanted to offer something positive,” Graustein said. “A lot of people have anxiety about what will happen.”
Danny McDonald and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.