In an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus, a growing number of school districts around the region on Thursday announced they were shutting down all of their schools, some for at least two weeks or longer.
In Malden, public schools went as far to say they were closing indefinitely. Six suburban districts — Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Burlington, Lexington, and Winchester — decided to make a decision jointly, recognizing it will take a concerted effort to ward off the virus in the region. The officials said schools would be closed until at least March 27 and warned it could be longer, if warranted.
“Our decision has been informed by our local boards of health, as well by expert epidemiologists who recognize that the time to act is now,” their statement said. “We know we can have a greater and more positive impact on public health and safety if we do this together. Many in our area have been particularly impacted due to our families who have greater number of presumptive positive cases in the area.”
Newton’s public schools will close Friday and remain shuttered next week, and possibly longer, Superintendent David Fleishman said Thursday. Wellesley’s public schools will close for at least two weeks.
In Boston, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the state’s largest district had no plans for a districtwide shutdown, although she noted that both student and teacher absenteeism was on the rise. Student abenteeism on Thursday hit 13 percent, representing more than 5,300 students. Typically, it’s 7 to 8 percent.
But as more suburban districts call off school, that could increase the pressure on Boston, because a large portion of its teaching and administrative workforce resides in the suburbs and may either need to self-isolate or to deal with child care, observers said.
The late afternoon and evening announcements came as concern about coronavirus was increasingly changing life in school communities across the state.
In Natick, high school students, worried about exposure to the virus from students who tested positive, walked out of classes Thursday morning, and officials later canceled school across the district until at least next Friday.
The Cambridge superintendent of schools announced he was self-quarantining after a community member at his son’s school in Boston tested presumptively positive, adding that he would be presenting next year’s proposed budget to the School Committee via video conference. Late Thursday, amid pressure from parents, Cambridge announced its public schools will be closed, starting Monday, through March 27.
The issue could come to a head Friday morning, when the state education commissioner holds a conference call with superintendents across the state about the expanding health crisis and what measures they should take. A state education spokeswoman said no big announcement is expected, but local educators and advocates say it is becoming clear that a coordinated approach — rather than a patchwork of local decisions — may be necessary.
“I don’t think we have had much direct guidance that we should have around the public-health aspect of the [school closing] issue,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“Our superintendents have been referred to local boards of health. In some communities, the boards are well staffed and on the ball, but in other cases it’s more varied . . . I think superintendents have been trying to rely on medical experts, but not in all cases do they have the level of expertise they need, and that is the frustrating piece.”
He also noted the coronavirus pandemic is unlike any other health crisis superintendents have dealt with before. Typically, a health issue, such as a neurovirus, would affect only one school community, requiring a closure for a day or two for deep-cleaning. But with coronavirus, the scale is more widespread and involves surrounding communities.
Cassellius said she has been relying on advice from the Boston Public Health Commission, which has not recommended closing the entire district. The only city-run school to close was the Eliot K-8 School, where classes won’t be held again at its three North End buildings until at least next Thursday. The city announced the closing late Wednesday after a nonstudent at the school tested positive for coronavirus. Cassellius would not elaborate.
The superintendent said she did not know how many teachers and other staffers districtwide might be out sick because they have been ordered to self-quarantine, noting that federal privacy rules do not require employees to disclose that information.
A few other schools in Boston, however, have closed. Boston College High School shut down Thursday and Friday for deep-cleaning after a parent of a student tested positive for the virus; the student tested negative but remains in quarantine. The school made academic work available to students on its website.
“At this point it is important to be clear that we are confident as we can be that we do not have COVID-19 at BC High,” reads a statement on the school’s website. “There have been no reported cases amongst our students or staff.”
At a community meeting in Natick Thursday evening, Superintendent Anna Nolin said the tide had turned, with closings happening en masse.
“A small, piecemeal response from one individual school system is not what we felt was required,” Nolin said.
KIPP Academy also closed its charter schools in Mattapan and Lynn for two weeks.
“The COVID-19 situation is rapidly changing. We want to ensure we are responding appropriately to keep our community safe," Caleb Dolan, KIPP Massachusetts executive director, said in a statement. "We are closing out of an abundance of caution. Currently, there are no known cases of COVID-19 at any KIPP MA school.”
Brockton Public Schools called off classes for Friday and Monday to deep-clean all schools, though they have no confirmed cases of the virus.
In Boston, Eliot families have been grappling with how to assess their potential risk to exposure when the school system is refusing to give even a hint about whether the affected individual is a teacher, parent, administrator, staffer, or volunteer, or about how they may be able to help.
“It would be nice to know if the person is recovering well and how we can come together to support that individual, but I do understand privacy needs to be maintained,” said Stephanie Shapiro-Berkson, a parent.