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School districts shut down, taking radical step to slow spread of coronavirus

Schools in Erie County will be closed through April 20 in an emergency bid to ward off the spread of the novel coronavirus, the head of Buffalo Public Schools said Sunday.

The sweeping decision, which includes Buffalo and Williamsville schools, temporarily upends life for tens of thousands of students, parents, teachers and staff in the region's largest school districts. Niagara County earlier Sunday announced all schools would be closed until further notice.

"We are in a state of emergency," Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said as he announced that superintendents across Erie County had come to the agreement to shut down for more than a month. "This is a global impact event. Business is not usual at all."

The decision followed a conference call between Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and the region's school superintendents, Cash said.

It was a radical step for many districts, including Buffalo Public Schools, which on Friday had announced its intention to close for one day before making a decision about the days ahead.

[RELATED: Niagara County closes schools until further notice, posts state of emergency]

Cash said it's also possible that the closings could be extended and that state tests could be postponed or waived.

The school closures capped a day of emergency declarations prompted by disclosures that three people had tested positive for COVID-19. By the end of Sunday, the total of confirmed cases had grown to seven in Erie County.

One of the people who had tested positive, a man who lives in Clarence, has a child in the same household that attends Clarence Center Elementary School, county officials said. The child has no symptoms, but attended school last week, and is now being tested along with other family members. The school district will "engage in deep cleaning" of all school buildings on Monday.

Poloncarz urged families not to go out for other activities in lieu of school.

"This is not a safe time for children to cluster together in public places outside of school," Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz, during a morning news conference, expressed concern about the potential for shutting schools for a lengthy period.

Poloncarz and Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said there are drawbacks to keeping children at home for a long time – including the inability for parents to go to work, particularly when it comes to employees who work in the health care and public safety fields.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not necessarily recommend long-term closure of schools," Burstein said during a news conference Sunday morning – hours before Cash announced that superintendents had agreed to close.

(Erie County)

Poloncarz, who said he spoke with leaders at Kaleida Health, Erie County Medical Center and Catholic Health in the past week, said one high-ranking hospital administrator warned that up to 20% of his employees may not be be able to come to work while schools are closed.

“They are very worried about the lack and loss of employees due to a grand closure of schools because parents want to take care of their children," Poloncarz said early in the day. “We cannot afford to have staff at a large amount disappearing from health care organizations in the near future.”

School superintendents, however, said they needed to create a consistent, clear end date for families. Niagara County also ordered its schools closed earlier in the day but did not set an end date.

"It is clear to me that I do not want to wait for an infection of any student, any staff," Cash told reporters. "This decision needs to be made."

Cash noted that the state already banned gatherings of more than 500 people, and suggested that "schools should be included in that." And he said that the "shorter time frames" for closing that had previously been proposed "don't seem to work."

Cash expressed particular concern for the welfare of teachers and staff. "Teachers come from all over the county to teach in Buffalo schools. Children are carriers of the virus," Cash said. "I don’t want to take that risk. Our staff must be protected, as well."

However, he asked that staff report to school on Monday to work on lesson plans, curriculum content, various tiers of study and "not just worksheets."

"If they need more time to coordinate all of the services that need to be coordinated then we will do that," Cash said. "We will work together with the city and county to make sure our children have food and services."

Cash said school buses could be used to distribute materials to students - including laptops and tablet computers - and mobile "hotspots" may be set up around community schools. He said schools will still provide two meals a day for qualifying children, and officials are also looking at ways to provide a "mini-supper."

"The kids will be provided with a bag that contains a lunch that can be heated up and then a breakfast for the next day that is a grab-and-go," Cash said.

Final decisions were still up to individual schools and districts, Erie County spokesman Peter Anderson said. But following the telephone call and Cash's press conference, individual private schools and suburban districts, including Williamsville Central School District, began putting out their own closure announcements.

Lancaster Central School District also said on Twitter that it would close "until further notice,"citing the county's state of emergency and "in cooperation with the other school districts in Erie County."

"We don't take this step lightly, but do so with our partners in government because of the gravity of the current public health crisis that we all face together," wrote Superintendent Michael J. Vallely in a notice posted on the district's website. "We know that these circumstances are unsettling and that the closing of our schools will cause hardships among many in our community."

Vallely said the Lancaster district has enacted a range of "continuity of service plans" to "ensure that children and families have access to as many of the resources to which you have grown accustomed."

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