More than 5.7 million K-12 California children, including more than nine out of 10 public school students, will be home from school starting Monday after a majority of the state’s school districts announced emergency closures to stem the novel coronavirus’ spread.

In a wave of announcements triggered Friday by the Los Angeles and San Diego Unified School Districts, which together educate some 750,000 students, the vast majority the state’s school children were told not to come to school starting this week — a delayed reaction to the spreading pandemic.

By Sunday night, according to a CalMatters analysis, more than 670 of the state’s 1,000 or so districts had shut down for periods ranging from two to four weeks. That included every one of the 25 largest except for Bakersfield’s Kern High School District, which announced it would close on Wednesday.

The number represented roughly two-thirds of the state’s school districts, but Gov. Gavin Newsom said the percentage was misleading because the districts that remained open, most of them rural, are tiny, with fewer than 2,500 students.

 In all, some 95% of the state’s 6 million public school students were impacted. In the two decades in which the state has kept records of emergency closures, no other event, including the devastating wildfires of 2018, has disrupted the education of so many Californians.

“This is a temporary thing,” said Christine K. Johnson, a professor of epidemiology at the One Health Institute at UC Davis. “If we do it well, we can manage this outbreak and continue to keep cases low.”

Kern County school officials attributed their reluctance to close to the lack of community spread of the disease in their area and the high proportion of low income students.

“Closing schools would cause huge impacts to the entire community and put our most vulnerable populations at risk,” said Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary C. Barlow in a statement. “Our students, families and community are relying on us to stay open as long as it is safely possible in order to receive essential services such as meals, health and mental health services and child care. Thousands of working parents in Kern County may not have provisions for child care and other services for their children outside of school.”

Until Friday, most most districts in the state shared that thinking, based primarily on guidance from the state and local public health officials that closures were not necessary unless someone at a district school had tested positive for the virus. Officials had reasoned that keeping kids in class would keep them fed, occupied and away from more vulnerable elderly and sick adults, and would minimize disruption for parents and first responders.

But pressure built, starting in Northern California, which was an early hot-spot for COVID-19, the aggressive infection caused by the virus, and where Elk Grove Unified School District, the state’s fifth largest, had been closed since Monday. As a nationwide shortage of tests made it clear that testing was an inadequate benchmark, scientists, teachers’ unions and frightened parents tipped the balance. 

Within an hour of the L.A. and San Diego decisions, districts statewide began convening emergency meetings, followed by dozens, then scores, then hundreds of announcements that they, too, would close.

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“California has now entered a critical new phase in the fight to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Los Angeles superintendent Austin Buetner and San Diego superintendent Cindy Marten said in a joint statement. “There is evidence the virus is already present in the communities we serve, and our efforts now must be aimed at preventing its spread. We believe closing the state’s two largest school districts will make an important contribution to this effort.”

Behind the statement was a debate over which policymakers have been agonizing, both nationally and in California: To send kids home, “flattening the curve” of potential damage as the virus spreads exponentially from person to person, or to keep them in school, where they could be educated, fed and kept away from far more vulnerable elderly adults and people weakened by chronic diseases.  

To close or not to close?

As recently as Thursday, Newsom had resisted calling for school closures, deferring to local officials, even as Governors in at least seven states — Oregon, West Virginia, New Mexico, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland — ordered their public schools to be shut down statewide. More than 32 million students in America have been affected by coronavirus-related closures, according to a tally by Education Week.

Newsom clamped down on public gatherings of more than 250 people, but said local schools should be the ones to decide whether to close schools and for how long. 

Part of Newsom’s concern, as well as those of school officials across the state, had been the widespread disruption mass closures stood to have on disadvantaged students and families. About 6 in 10 California students rely on schools for meals, and schools across California and the nation have begun to grapple with their limited bandwidth to provide distance learning to students for long periods of time in event of closures.

Another reason for the governor’s caution: The impact school closures would have on public health workers and emergency responders.

“If you are a caregiver of a loved one, a police officer, firefighter, emergency room doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner and you have kids, you have no capacity to have those kids at home without your own presence being there, you no longer are then part of the workforce to meet this moment,” Newsom said Thursday.

But other voices argued that even those first responder concerns were dwarfed by the urgent need to stop the virus.

“This is a temporary thing,” said Christine K. Johnson, a professor of epidemiology at the One Health Institute at UC Davis. “This is not going to be forever. If we do it well, we can manage this outbreak and continue to keep cases low and hopefully there will be a vaccine at some point in the future.”

Dr. John Swartzberg, professor emeritus at University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, agreed that “we have to be more aggressive.”  

“We can either wait until the pandemic is a lot worse and then close the schools, or we can close the schools now and hope that blunts the growth of the pandemic,” he said.

Also urging quick action were unions, who want protection for their members, not only in schools but in a wide array of workplaces. Nurses and healthcare workers, for example, have been protesting statewide since the outbreak began.

“We’re in uncharted waters and I think we really need to be on the side of precaution rather than be reactive and wait until there’s a massive number of students that have the coronavirus,” said Keith Brown, a middle school teacher and president of the Oakland Education Association, which represents teachers in Oakland Unified School District, which, shortly after the L.A. and San Diego announcements, said it, too, would close.

The California Teachers Association, among the state’s most powerful labor organizations, called on Newsom to simply close all schools statewide, arguing that most are unequipped to deal with the danger.

“Sadly, in many ways, this pandemic is showcasing some of the challenges we face in our schools every day. The lack of adequate nurses and counselors to assist our students is a constant struggle. We know many districts right now are struggling with having adequate cleaning supplies. And when schools do close, we must also have plans to support students, educators and families throughout that process,” E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, said in a statement Friday.

“The magnitude and severity of the pandemic is already impacting everyone, while the long-term impacts are really unknown.”

A trickle becomes a wave

Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference in the wake of the first COVID-19 death in California, a man who took a cruise from San Francisco to Mexico in February. The governor outlined measures being taken by the state to identify and test all other individuals who were on the same cruise ship as the deceased. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference in the wake of the first COVID-19 death in California. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

As the debate raged over precious days, Northern California schools began closing, starting with Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento County, which took action last Saturday after a student tested positive for coronavirus.

“California has now entered a critical new phase in the fight to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The trickle became a rush on Thursday, as the San Francisco Unified School District announced schools would be closed for three weeks, followed in short order by districts in Sacramento, West Contra Costa, Berkeley, San Mateo, Santa Cruz County and elsewhere.

Southern California was a different story, with only a couple of districts announcing closures before Friday, when the LAUSD school board called a 7 a.m. emergency meeting amid mounting public pressure to close.

Dozens of local petitions had circulated online calling for the cancellation of classes at LAUSD’s 900 campuses, which serve more than 670,000 students. In a Thursday press conference, United Teachers Los Angeles, the LAUSD union, demanded that  schools proactively close to protect students and slow the spread of the virus — and to provide social services to disadvantaged students in time of closures. 

In an executive order issued Friday, Newsom guaranteed that school districts would continue to get their regular, attendance-based state funding even in the event of physical closure, and directed schools to use that money to fund distance learning and independent study, continue to provide school meals and pay employees and, “as practicable,” arrange supervision for students during school hours.

How that will work out remains to be seen as California embarks on what is almost certain to be the most widespread school shutdown in state history. Shutting down a school is a “profound step by a society,” said Berkeley professor Swartzberg, and the impact is expected to be widespread, particularly for low income children.

It is not clear, either, that the effort to stem the contagion won’t be undermined as students who otherwise would be in school are tempted to fan out to malls, stores, movie theaters and extended family. Asked on Sunday whether parents should let their kids play with other children while school is out of session, Newsom said little ones can have limited social interactions, but only with children already in their social sphere.

“We don’t want mixing,” the governor said. “People that have been in existing social cohorts, that’s one thing. But mixing those social cohorts is the point of concern.”

CalMatters reporters Adria Watson and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report.

Updated March 15, 2020.

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Ricardo Cano

Ricardo Cano covers California education for CalMatters. Cano joined CalMatters in September 2018 from The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, where he spent three years as the education reporter. Cano...

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Jocelyn Wiener

Jocelyn Wiener writes about health and mental health for CalMatters, exploring the intersection between government policies and people’s lives. She has worked as a reporter in her native California for...