Oakland Technical High School students gather after an announcement March 13 that all Oakland schools would close for three weeks over coronavirus concerns. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

California schools shut down by the thousands Friday as fear of the novel coronavirus closed the state’s two largest districts, setting off a wave that sent millions of students home for days, weeks or until further notice in counties from San Diego to Siskiyou.

The announcements from the Los Angeles and San Diego Unified school districts, which together educate some 750,000 students, had a domino effect, prompting public, private and parochial schools to dismiss class in an effort to stem the pandemic.

By Friday evening, closures impacting two-thirds of the public school students in the state — more than 4 million students — had been announced throughout California, according to a CalMatters analysis. 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.”

In Northern California, which has been a hot-spot for, the aggressive infection caused by the virus, school cancellations had already been announced. Elk Grove Unified School District, the state’s fifth largest, has been closed since Monday.

Most other schools across California had been opting to remain in session, primarily based on guidance from local public health officials that closures were not necessary. Officials reasoned that keeping kids in class would keep them fed, occupied and away from more vulnerable elderly and sick adults, as well as minimize disruption for parents. Pressure from scientists, teachers’ unions and frightened parents tipped the balance.

The announcements rippled instantly throughout the state, as other districts convened their own emergency school board meetings. Within an hour of the L.A. and San Diego’s decisions, nearly two dozen districts in San Diego County said they, too, would close.

“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.”

But 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, Gov. Gavin 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 8 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 UC 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. (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 fan out to malls, stores, movie theaters and extended family.

“[But] sometimes,” he said, “you need someone with authority to say ‘this is what it’s going to be.’”

* CalMatters reporter Adria Watson contributed to this report.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Jocelyn Wiener

CALmatters