Fairfax County Schools Do Right Thing for Wrong Reason After Doing Wrong Thing

Schools were going to be open today. They're closing after parent pressure.

Earlier this week, we received notice that our local schools would close next Monday (March 16) so that teachers and administrators could huddle to figure out how to shift to distance learning in event schools needed to shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also canceled a few field trips and extracurricular activities.

At 8:37 last evening, Scott Braband, the system Superintendent, sent out a mass email titled “COVID-19 Update from the Superintendent” explaining why he had not yet made the decision to shut down schools even though neighboring districts and the local community college already had. It said, in part,

I want to share with you a statement from Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, Health Director, Fairfax County.

“I support the Fairfax County Public School’s decision to remain open at this time. To date, the individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Fairfax have been associated with travel to affected areas or are close contacts of people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. They contracted the illness through direct exposure rather than through sustained community spread. Schools serve an important and vital function in our community. Keeping schools open, whenever possible, is critical at this time. If, and when, it is determined that our contact investigations show any connection to the school system, we would provide closure guidance and recommendations. These would be based on sound, public health principles. If a confirmed case of COVID-19 is identified in a school (staff or student), our recommendation would be to close that particular school for 2-14 days, depending on the level of exposures, for cleaning and contact tracing. We would monitor students and staff and re-open after that time.”

They also announced further cancelations of after-school events.

My initial reaction to the email was to wonder why Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu seemingly knows less about how pandemics work than I do. Yes, I’m a Dr. But it’s in political science, not epidemiology.

Every informed citizen ought to understand by now that, by the time a “contact” is identified, it’s too fucking late to close the schools because symptoms don’t manifest for days and people will unknowingly spread the disease far and wide, putting vulnerable people in mortal danger and risking overwhelming our health system.

I responded to the email pithily:

This isn’t how pandemics work. By the time kids in the schools show symptoms it’s too late. And they’ll infect their grandparents, some of whom will die.

The 996 people who responded to the tweeted version of the announcement were also apparently more up to speed on how pandemics work than the Health Director of Fairfax County Public Schools.

Aside from explaining the concept of flattening the curve, many pointed out that the risk of exposure from outdoor sporting events was likely lower than, say, cramming 35 kids into a small classroom with recirculated air for 8 hours.

A second email, again titled “COVID-19 Update from Superintendent,” was sent at 11:43 pm. It read,

During the past several hours we continue to hear genuine concerns from parents about keeping our schools open while the coronavirus response escalates around the country. Schools are closing in Maryland and several other states and a state of emergency was declared in Virginia. As a result, and in an abundance of caution, I believe it is prudent for FCPS to cancel school tomorrow to help ease parent, staff, and student anxiety.

Therefore, all FCPS schools will be closed Friday, March 13, 2020.

This was, of course, the right move. But it was made for the wrong reason. The purpose of closing schools is to keep people alive, not “ease anxiety.”

And, indeed, he hasn’t even made that decision yet:

Monday, March 16, will remain a student holiday/staff development day to allow our classroom teachers to prepare for the possibility of distance learning. 

This remains a very fast moving narrative and the situation Monday is likely to be very different than today. We will determine Monday how we will proceed long term with FCPS operations. 

My inclination at this point is to keep the kids home regardless. It’s simply incomprehensible that the school superintendent and health director are this slow on the learning curve.

UPDATE: The Governor took it out of Braband’s hands, ordering all public schools in the state closed through March 27. Since FCPS is on Spring Break the following week, that means classes are suspended through April 10.

That’s going to be really hard for most people to deal with, financially and socially. The schools are providing free weekday breakfast and lunch to anyone under 18 who wants them throughout the shutdown.

FILED UNDER: Education, Health
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. PJ says:

    This isn’t how pandemics work. By the time kids in the schools show symptoms it’s too late. And they’ll infect their grandparents, some of whom will die.

    One problem is who will watch the kids if they are no longer in school and the parent or parents has to work? The solution will be that the grandparents will watch them…

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @PJ: I honestly have no idea how we’re going to solve the “who will watch the kids” issue, much less the “how do I pay my bills if I can’t go to work” issue caused by all of the event closures. But social distancing could well be the difference between 1000 dead and a million dead here in the US.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    gVOR’s third rule of project management – If you’re going to have to panic, do it now.

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  4. Mu Yixiao says:

    Our school district had made no announcements about their plans until I contacted the outgoing and incoming district administrators and asked them to release a statement. That was yesterday.

    Schools are remaining open, but events of over 50 people are being cancelled, and they’re teaching the kids how to wash their hands.

    We are currently in the process of developing a district-wide plan to address the possibility of the need to close school for a period of time. That plan is in process and we will provide additional information to staff, students, and parents once the plan has been finalized.

    I’m not overly confident in either of the people in charge to handle this well.

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  5. Mu Yixiao says:

    AND…. they just sent out another message saying “Oh… Wait… that just confused everyone. Let me clear that up.”

    With the intent to keep communications consistent with recommendations and directives from National, State, and County Health agencies it appears the use of their term “gatherings” has done just the opposite.

  6. Modulo Myself says:

    One problem is who will watch the kids if they are no longer in school and the parent or parents has to work? The solution will be that the grandparents will watch them…

    Almost like we live in an atomized society where the grandparents aren’t around, and single moms and working parents are working to support two kids and school is part of their child support.

    Meanwhile, we can drop 1.5 trillion in ‘money’ into a market built on leverage, but we’ll sit around and tip-toe around the possibility of cancelling debt payments and rent for six months while pretending everyone can work from home. Which by the way–I do wonder if people like my some of my friends who just bunkered down immediately and started back to work on billing 2000/hr for PE deals are kind of signalling how terminally inessential they are to the world.

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  7. DrDaveT says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Meanwhile, we can drop 1.5 trillion in ‘money’ into a market built on leverage […]

    Wait, you thought safety nets were for the vulnerable? Dude, this is America…

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  8. DrDaveT says:

    by the time a “contact” is identified, it’s too [expletive] late to close the schools

    Part of this is driven by the general human inability to deal with uncertainty. Our brains like cause and effect, yes or no. They work much less well with maybe, and don’t work at all (absent specialist training) with small probabilities in large populations.

    (Yes, the county Health Director should be one of those people with specialist training. Is she an MD? I’ve found that physicians tend to have much worse grounding in probability and statistics than social scientists or physical scientists.)

    There’s an analogy here to not being willing to cancel schools when a major snowstorm is going to hit in mid-afternoon, but skies are clear in the morning. The authorities get less hassle from the public for sending kids home during a blizzard than they get for closing school only to have the storm fizzle. They’ve been conditioned to worry more about false positives than late response.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    (Yes, the county Health Director should be one of those people with specialist training. Is she an MD? I’ve found that physicians tend to have much worse grounding in probability and statistics than social scientists or physical scientists.)

    That makes sense, I guess. And, yes, she’s a general practice MD with an MPH.

    The authorities get less hassle from the public for sending kids home during a blizzard than they get for closing school only to have the storm fizzle. They’ve been conditioned to worry more about false positives than late response.

    Yes, fair point.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Meanwhile, we can drop 1.5 trillion in ‘money’ into a market built on leverage, but we’ll sit around and tip-toe around the possibility of cancelling debt payments and rent for six months while pretending everyone can work from home.

    Those aren’t comparable decisions. A one-day loan costs us nothing. I would imagine large banks could survive without getting loan payments for half a year but it would be a massive blow. I don’t think most landlords could absorb their rent being canceled for even a month.

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @James Joyner:

    Landlords could if mortgage payments were put on hold. Italy just did that. I’m sure it’s a massive blow to the banks (which I’m sure could be remedied) but if we’re talking about the difference in tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands in dead, who cares?

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Landlords could if mortgage payments were put on hold. Italy just did that.

    There’s a missing word in here so I’m not quite sure what you’re claiming.

    But landlords often have substantial expenses—mortgage payments, insurance, maintenance and other salaried workers, often utility bills, taxes, etc. How are they supposed to meet that if they lose their income stream? Not all of them all billionaires.

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  13. Kit says:

    @gVOR08:

    gVOR’s third rule of project management – If you’re going to have to panic, do it now.

    Ok, you’ve got me hooked: what are the others?

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  14. Lounsbury says:

    Of utility, as highlighted by Drum:

    Comparative case load progression with Italy, USA, UK, France, etc.

    As comments indicate, it’s not adjusted for population but at the same time it is not adjusted by substantially lower testing levels (as of 10 March reporting (https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-testing-covid-19-tests-per-capita-chart-us-behind-2020-3) USA at 5 per million [per capita testing] versus Italy at 826 per million, UK at 327, etc. – not just a little below, massively below.

    Not conclusive, but suggestive that USA has a COVID19 tidal wave bearing down on its health care system.

    Perhaps over on this side of the Atlantic we shall have to thank Trump for his protective measure of not allowing Europeans (except if via London…) be exposed to USA…

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  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Kit:
    – Don’t close out Plan A until Plan B delivers.
    – If you can’t come up with a plan that will work, start moving in the right direction and see what develops.
    – Never do business with the Navy. (Actually Kelly Johnson’s unwritten rule from the Lockheed Skunk Works and one my management did not allow me to follow, leading to a great deal of misery.)
    But mostly I make them up as I need them.

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  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Lounsbury: Somebody half joked maybe Canada needs to build a wall.

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  17. Raoul says:

    We need a massive China style quarantine in the country now!

    1
  18. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    Are you / were you a project manager?

    1
  19. Andy says:

    Wow, I’m really surprised your school district is so short-sighted.

    I guess we’re lucky here with more competent administrators. Today is the last day of school here, and students were told to bring in the electronic devices they use at home so they can be configured for remote learning. After today, all schools in my county and across most of the state are closed for at least the next two weeks.

    1
  20. Modulo Myself says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s really simple. If you want to shut schools you have to have adults watching kids when they’re not in school. If you want people to keep social distance that means they can’t go out to restaurants, etc. If you want people to stay home that means they work from home or they can’t work.

    For this to happen, the government has to pay for it to happen, because what I am describing is not an actual economy. How will people who can’t go to work pay for their survival? You’re literally saying landlords need rent, because how will they pay the bank. But how will landlords get money from tenants who can’t go to work? And what are they going to do if they don’t get paid? Evict the tenant? How would they get another tenant to move in?

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  21. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    Renters have substantial expenses like food, childcare, utilities, and rent.

    Landlords lose income. Renters lose homes.

    Let’s acknowlege some perspective here.

    8
  22. Raoul says:

    @Modulo Myself: Dead men pay no rent.

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  23. de stijl says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Some people identify with capital.

    Not sure why, but it does happen.

    1
  24. Tyrell says:

    @PJ: Our governor has said that the schools will not be shut down the rest of the year. The two reasons are: just what you said. Parents either have to stay out of work to keep them or scramble to find someone. Many parents are nurses, and work in hospitals. Others will just go to their day care that they stay at in the mornings and after school. So how is that better than keeping school open? The governor also said that few children and young people are getting the virus, not very susceptible.
    That does not mean that counties can’t extend Easter break by a week. I look for a lot of them to do that.

    2
  25. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    For this to happen, the government has to pay for it to happen

    Ah, yes. I didn’t understand what you were arguing. But, yes, we have to backstop this to prevent calamity.

    @de stijl: Yes, obviously. I was responding to a suggestion that the government just declare six months of free rent.

    I addressed the larger point in my Tuesday post, “Stay Home if You’re Sick (Without Pay, of Course)

    On a broader level, we’re encouraging people not to travel. Not to go to restaurants and shopping malls. Or, for goodness sake, take cruises. Those are prudent measures. But who’s going to make up the salaries—or, pay the health insurance premiums—of the hourly workers impacted?

    We’ll almost certainly wind up bailing out airlines, cruise ship companies, and other major companies who go bankrupt because of the pandemic. But, aside from offering extended unemployment benefits, we likely won’t do much for the workers at the bottom rungs of the ladder.

    These may well be issues that we need to address at the national level rather than leaving up to the vagaries of states and localities.

    1
  26. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    Of all of the headlines. Of all the stories.

    You chose billionaires, landlords, and Wall Street to highlight. Those choices are illustrative.

    I acknowledge that you acknowledged the proles in each, but the framing choice was pretty explicit.

    Look at the headlines you wrote. You are unaware of your bias.

    1
  27. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl:

    Of all of the headlines. Of all the stories.

    I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. The linked post is a commentary on the fact that low-paid workers at a major restaurant chain don’t have sick leave and that they’re therefore forced to make a Hobbesian choice. And a call to nationalize the policy response rather than leaving it up to the vagaries of state and local regulation.

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  28. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    Look at the the two headlines above this post. You probably chose the headline, but step back slightly and look at what it says.

    Think about who is impacted and how.

    You are you. You can choose to frame this as impacting billionaires and landlords. Totally your right.

    That would not be how I would approach the topic. We differ.

    1
  29. DrDaveT says:

    @Tyrell:

    The governor also said that few children and young people are getting the virus, not very susceptible.

    Then your governor is an idiot. What is actually happening is that the majority of children and young people who get the virus do not show serious symptoms, so that nobody knows they have it. This makes them perfect vectors, silently transmitting the disease to others.

    Nobody who understands what is going on is closing schools to protect the children. They’re closing schools to protect the elderly from the children.

    3
  30. Jax says:

    Our school district has canceled all athletics, everything before and after school, all band/choir/theater performances, and they’re working on getting remote classes set up for those of us who have at-risk kids. My oldest daughter has severe asthma, so neither one of them will go back to school after spring break.

  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    From the Left Coast:

    By direction of Governor Inslee, and to help our state and nation combat the spread of the coronavirus, Longview Public Schools is closing all of its schools starting Monday, March 16, through Friday, April 24.

    Longview is one of the districts that I substitute at, so this will impact me some (the savings account that I put the money in will stop growing for 6 weeks) and relative to where I live–at the outer ring of the Portland, OR metro area and 300 or so miles from Seattle–it’s probably an overreaction, but I suspect that it is probably the right amount of overreaction under the circumstances. The news here is saturated with Seattle and PDX coronavirus news, so I’m in a slight vacuum for what our region’s actual risk is (yeah, I know, we’re all gonna die, but…)

    Unlike other areas I’ve been reading about on the thread, our school age children do not have universal access to devices that “can be configured for remote learning” (60 0r 70% of our districts’–plural for Teve’s sake–[edit:] students qualify for free/reduced price lunches), so I’m a little puzzled about how the state figures that one additional week (the current proposal) is going to replace 5 missing weeks, but that’s not my problem. Interesting times.

  32. Ken_L says:

    It’s not quite as straightforward an issue as the post implies, for reasons touched on in some of the comments. Kids who can’t go to school aren’t going to sit in their rooms for weeks, or at least most won’t. Many of them will congregate in other locations, often unsupervised. The risk of them contracting and passing on the virus may be even greater than if they were in class. At least one state in Australia has decided not to close schools for that very reason, at least for the time being.

    The best solution would be to quarantine everyone under 50 until the older members of the herd either died or recovered from the virus, whereupon normal life could resume. But since that’s not practicable, any alternative measures will have their own problems. It’s not really helpful to resort to ‘common sense/stupid’ labels.

    1
  33. gVOR08 says:

    @de stijl: Engineering manger, managed many projects. Now retired.

  34. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    I always worked in software.

    It is bracing to see new rules and realities.

    Did you have to do project management software? I am sorry in advance.

  35. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I honestly have no idea how we’re going to solve the “who will watch the kids” issue, much less the “how do I pay my bills if I can’t go to work” issue caused by all of the event closures.

    As you noted, Greg Mankiw says “Have the government start writing checks to everyone. Today.” Frankly, I don’t believe this administration is sufficiently competent to make that happen in less than a month, even if they wanted to. That’s too slow to avoid the first round of premature return to normal routine.

  36. Mikey says:

    The Governor took it out of Braband’s hands, ordering all public schools in the state closed through March 27. Since FCPS is on Spring Break the following week, that means classes are suspended through April 10.

    That’s going to be really hard for most people to deal with, financially and socially.

    It sure is. And it’s going to hit the lesser-privileged the hardest, as usual, and in a way it wouldn’t in any other first-world country because America doesn’t mandate any paid leave for anyone.

    My family is fortunate–my wife is an employee of FCPS (she had a high opinion of Dr. Brabrand…until a couple days ago) so she is basically getting a four-week paid vacation, and she can stay home with our son. Even if she were unpaid, I earn enough to support us on my income alone. Tens of millions of American families aren’t so fortunate. A payroll tax cut isn’t going to help them one iota.

    1