In spring 2009, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health faced a tough decision: Should it close schools because of the H1N1 virus, a.k.a the swine flu, that shuttered hundreds of schools around the country?
As more students contracted the virus, the department decided against a blanket closure, opting instead to close schools on an as-needed basis. But after it told two schools in Chandler and one in Phoenix to close, parents suddenly needed to figure out who would look after their children when they went to work. The schools, which were supposed to be closed for a week, reopened days ahead of schedule.
Fast-forward 11 years to the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has infected six people in Arizona, including one student in Queen Creek, in Pinal County. Don't expect schools to close over it, for now.
"At this time, school closures are not recommended by the Arizona Department of Health Services or any county Department of Public Health," Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman wrote in a letter to local school leaders Tuesday. If that changes, it'll be the county health departments that announce closures — not the Department of Education — her letter added.
Whether or not to recommend school closures is entirely up to state and county public health officials, Morgan Dick, spokesperson for the department, told Phoenix New Times, because the Department of Education does not have that authority.
"We're certainly, at this point, not recommending that schools close, and we will never be recommending that schools close," Dick said. "That will always come from the Department of Health."
Nevertheless, the Department of Education is drafting various contingency plans in the event that schools do need to cancel class, Dick said.
They're looking at potential ways that students could continue learning, what to do about the basic social services that schools provide, like meals and after-school care, and how to address interruptions to upcoming statewide testing.
Those internal plans would not be shared "unless the situation warrants it," Dick said.
For now, the greatest concerns that the Department of Education are hearing from parents are fears about field trips and about the risk of people returning from spring break travels, she added.
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One major factor that public health officials consider in deciding whether to shutter schools is, "How much are we really doing by ordering school closures?" Dick said, pointing to the swine flu outbreak more than a decade ago.
In her letter to school officials Tuesday, Hoffman hinted at the burden that closing schools would put on parents.
"We are aware of the questions and logistics our schools will face should a county health department recommend a school closure," she wrote. "Please know ADE will be prepared to provide guidance to schools about graduation, assessments, schools meals, special education services, etc. should that situation arise."
She encouraged school leaders to take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading, including by telling sick students and staff to stay home, to do routine cleanings and disinfection at schools, and by reminding students to take simple measures like covering their mouths with a tissue when they sneeze or cough.