Nat Kerman

New Haven Public Schools, senior centers and libraries will close indefinitely starting on Friday amid national fear surrounding COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Mayor Justin Elicker, interim Superintendent Ilene Tracey and other city officials held a press conference Thursday afternoon — a day after the city closed Nathan Hale School after a parent was suspected of the coronavirus infection — to announce the closure. This move is in lockstep with school districts across the country; as of noon on Mar. 12, over 2,000 schools nationwide have been closed or are scheduled to close, according to Education Week. Thursday’s announcement will affect over 1.3 million students, over 21,600 of whom are in New Haven. 

Public school closures have prompted widespread conversation about school lunch provision, online learning and childcare, among many other issues that face students and their families amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The City of New Haven plans to continue providing meal services to those who rely on them through a neighborhood program and will use a range of remote education materials to accomodate students without access to online learning platforms. At Thursday’s press conference, Elicker also urged New Haven employers to be flexible with employees who now have to take care of children during their normal working hours and expressed his hope for state and federal provisions to prevent employers from firing affected employees.  

“The rapid spread of COVID-19 clearly merits this decision [to close New Haven Public Schools indefinitely],” Elicker said on Thursday. “We have learned from observing the impacts of the virus… that a proactive response is crucial to limiting community spread of the disease.” 

On Wednesday, the mayor announced the temporary closure of Nathan Hale School — originally, for just Thursday and Friday of this week — after it was suspected that a Nathan Hale parent came in contact with COVID-19, exhibited symptoms and entered school buildings. On Wednesday, the administration announced that the city health department asked the family to self-isolate but did not recommend self-isolation for the rest of the student body. 

Thursday’s decision to close all New Haven public schools, Elicker said, was not influenced by the decision to close Nathan Hale. Rather, after consulting with the governor’s office and other community leaders and considering current news updates, the administration opted for preventative measures for the entire district. Social isolation is essential, Elicker wrote in a Facebook post, to slow virus transmission and prevent an overwhelming of the healthcare system. 

There are currently over 1,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, with confirmed cases in 42 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Center for Disease Control. The World Health Organization declared the spread of coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday, as the number of cases globally surpassed 120,000. There are four confirmed cases in Connecticut, two of which appear to be the result of local transmission rather than out-of-state travel. 

In response to the growing public health crisis, Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday issued an executive order banning gatherings of 250 or more and waived a state requirement that mandates 180 instructional days per academic year. This requirement change comes along with a wave of school closures across the state — from cancellations of large gatherings to indefinite measures like New Haven’s — that affect nearly two dozen school districts and over a dozen colleges and universities, including Yale. 

For its part, New Haven will provide a range of remote education options to students, according to Tracey. These options will include online education via sites like Google Classroom and course packets for students without access to computers or WiFi. New Haven’s public libraries are also closing indefinitely beginning Friday,  so students will not be able to access library technology.

Additionally, the city will continue to provide school meals for those who rely on them, according to NHPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto. To receive these meals, students will go to the school closest to them rather than the school they otherwise attend. The city aims to make 39 schools available for meal services — meaning that no student will be more than approximately a quarter-mile from the nearest participating school, Pinto emphasized. Students are asked to pick up their meals and then take them elsewhere, rather than eating in the schools themselves. The city plans to start this program on Monday, although this depends on a variety of hurdles at the state level, according to Pinto. 

But meals and classes are not the only causes for community concern. Many parents will now be forced to stay home to take care of children who are no longer attending school as a result of the closure. At Thursday’s press conference, Elicker encouraged New Haven employers to be flexible in working options for affected employees and expressed his hope that federal and state officials will implement assurances that employees will not be fired as a result of COVID-19-related complications. 

Yet even with potential provisions against firing and flexible working hours, school closures pose a significant challenge to many New Haven parents. Business Insider reported last month that the average New Haven resident has negative $156.41 after income tax and average expenses.  In interviews with the New Haven Independent outside of Jepson, Fair Haven School and Truman School, several parents expressed serious concerns about balancing childcare and work. 

“If she is home, I stay home and lose money,” one Jepson parent, who declined to give his name, said of his daughter. Another parent shared the same concerns.

“That’s money,” she said. “I need to work, and there is no Plan B.”

In a Thursday email to New Haven residents, Elicker said that the city has “struggled to balance” concerns about community safety with the significant challenges that preventative measures like school and library closure will present to New Haven families. The city’s health department is reacting quickly to new development, he said, and the city will continue working to provide resources for residents as they navigate an escalating series of preventative measures.

Several parents interviewed by the Independent praised the Elicker administration’s communication and containment efforts. The city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic began with preventative instruction — like washing hands, staying home when sick and avoiding large gatherings — and has since grown to include cancellations of large annual events like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade as well as Thursday’s school closure. 

There is a coronavirus information page on the city website providing instruction to shelters, businesses, daycares and the general population, among other groups.

 

Updated March 12, 9:40 p.m.

This is a breaking story. Check back later for updates.

Correction, March 12: A previous version of this article stated that a Nathan Hale parent was confirmed to be infected with COVID-19. In fact, the parent was suspected to have COVID-19.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu