In a dramatic turnaround that is likely to upend the lives of tens of thousands of families and children, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced Friday that all the city’s schools will close for six weeks in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Boston Public Schools, with 54,000 students, will close starting on Tuesday and remain shuttered until April 27, after spring vacation, Walsh said during an evening press conference surrounded by teachers, health experts and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
“We have determined that now is the time to take bold action, and slow the spread of the virus,” Walsh said.
The school may re-open sooner if safe, he added.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, whose son Blaise attends Sumner School, a BPS elementary school in Roslindale, said in a Friday statement that “Every day matters in this public health crisis, and early actions to slow the spread will save lives.”
She added, “Schools are more than a place for our students to learn; they’re a support system for families. So it’s important to move forward with public health protections that also prioritize supports for families and kids.”
Boston’s nearly 125 schools will be open on Monday for a regular school day. Parents will have the next few days to plan for childcare and other needs, according to the mayor.
The city is developing lesson plans for students to take home and still finalizing ways to ensure that the thousands of children who rely on school services, including daily meals, don’t go hungry, Walsh said.
The city expects to notify parents with those details on Sunday, Walsh said.
Walsh said he and school officials have been discussing closing Boston’s schools for the past several days, but the district is complex and student needs far more extensive than elsewhere. Many of the city’s students rely on the schools for breakfast and lunch, for example.
Walsh’s decision to shut the schools for two weeks is among the most dramatic responses to the coronavirus in Massachusetts. Many districts in the region, for instance, have announced two-week closures.
Walsh said those school systems will probably have to reconsider their plans.
“I’m assuming that those districts are closing for two weeks, but that they’re going to continue that closure,” Walsh said. “There are no signs right now that the coronavirus threat is going to stop or slow down.”
One parent said Walsh acted too slowly to close schools, compared to surrounding communities that announced prolonged closures.
“I don’t know that he was understanding the anxiety of parents in the district waiting to hear what the plan was,” said Lauren Margharita, 49, a Roslindale mother of three teenagers.
Margharita, who works at a local college and has two children in Boston Public Schools, said she was still processing the length of time children would be out of school. noted the district’s closure would be a major disruption for thousands of students and their families.
“It’s a big challenge,” she said. “Nothing can replace face-to-face instruction.”
Separately Friday, more than a dozen Boston charter schools announced they would be shut for about two weeks. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston also announced that all Boston parish schools and archdiocesan elementary and high schools will be closed for two weeks from Monday through March 27 and could remain closed beyond that.
Walsh had been more reticent in recent days about closing Boston schools, even as surrounding suburban districts have shut down their schools for cleanings and to limit exposure to the virus.
Walsh said he and school officials have been discussing closing Boston’s schools for the past several days, but the district is complex and student needs are far more extensive than in smaller districts. Many of the city’s students rely on the schools for breakfast and lunch, for example.
Earlier this week, Eliot School in the North End was closed on the recommendation of public health officials, although there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Boston schools.
Pressure has mounted over the past several days for Governor Charlie Baker to order schools statewide to shut down.
On Thursday, nearly two dozen municipal leaders in Greater Boston signed a letter urging Baker to close all schools in Massachusetts, as well as other buildings where people congregate. A group of 16 Massachusetts state legislators, as well as the Massachusetts Teachers Association, wrote to Baker on Friday, with similar pleas.
But Baker has so far left the emotional and challenging decision to the state’s 351 cities and towns.
What has resulted is a fast-growing patchwork of closings, including a wave announced Friday of more than 25 school districts on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley. Calls to close even more public spaces are intensifying, with some public officials, union heads, and medical experts calling for more dramatic action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Massachusetts has confirmed 123 cases of the disease as of Friday.
“Every public health expert I have spoken to has said they believe kids can spread the virus to each other and family members at home,” said Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. “As we are taking steps to slow the spread of Covid-19, we have to recognize that closing schools now could save lives.”
A number of states have already closed all their schools to fight the spread of the disease, including Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, and Michigan. Los Angeles officials on Friday closed the second-largest school system in the United States, according to news reports.
The competing counter-pressure to closing schools, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, is that modern schools are more than places of learning; they are a vital part of the social safety net, and for some families the only place a child gets a decent meal or the opportunity to see a nurse.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, of closing schools. “It exposes the way in which inequality makes certain people more vulnerable.
“If you have the money to pay for child care or if you have the privilege in your job, as I do, of being able to work from home, you can figure it out,” he said. “If you are working for an hourly wage and don’t get paid if you don’t show up, you’re in trouble.”
In guidance issued Friday, state education and public health officials called for an end to large gatherings of 250 or more people and the limiting of any gatherings where students and staff are less than six feet apart. The guidance also included recommended steps to handle a range of scenarios, such as when a student or staff member is diagnosed with the novel coronavirus or if a community sees multiple unlinked cases.
Baker said at a Friday news conference that state public health officials are not advising that schools shut down statewide but are recommending careful monitoring of students and temporary closures to allow for schools to clean and reopen.
Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville said he was frustrated by the guidelines.
“I have no doubt the governor understands the urgency of the epidemic if we don’t act, but the actions recommended don’t reflect that urgency,” Curtatone said. “We cannot take baby steps. ... All the experts in the medical field have told us we need to be closing schools.”
On Thursday, more than a dozen superintendents ordered schools closed for one week to more than a month.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo of Rhode Island on Friday ordered public schools statewide to close at least through next week.
Mayor Carlo DeMaria of Everett on Thursday took what he acknowledged is “an extreme measure” and closed his city’s schools for a month.
“It was a tough decision, but I took the health and safety of all my residents as the number one priority,” DeMaria said on Friday. “If we can keep people away from each other in this period of time, we can get through this. Living life like nothing is happening is not reasonable. Why risk people’s lives?”
The four-week closure in Everett includes what would be April vacation. If the virus is under control by then, the city can open schools sooner, DeMaria said. In the meantime, the city will open a drop-in center for families to pick up grab-and-go school lunches.
“You have some young parents who are working now facing the ordeal, ‘Who is going to watch my child?’ ” the mayor said. “But I feel the next few weeks are imperative to stop the spreading of this virus. This is not hysteria. It’s being proactive. I’m worrying about my residents, worrying about my seniors.”
In Fall River, Superintendent Matthew H. Malone said in a statement that schools in the city are “open for the foreseeable future.” He said Bristol County did not have a confirmed case of Covid-19.
“Our current exposure risk threat remains low, as there is no evidence of sustained community transmission,” Malone wrote. “This decision was made following careful consideration of the information and guidance provided by [Department of Public Health] and [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education], the science behind the virus, the practical needs of our students and our community, and the best recommendations of our health care professionals.”
As Boston officials were weighing their options late Friday, Cassellius said a critical challenge would be getting food to students who weren’t attending school. A majority of the district’s students are low income. Cassellius said the district has been developing “contingency plans” since the virus’s onset, looking at ways to address teacher absences, school safety, protect medically vulnerable students, and e-learning.
Emily Sweeney, Andrew Ryan and Bianca Vazquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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