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Erie, Niagara schools begin closing Monday, many for more than a month

Almost all schools in Erie and Niagara counties will be closed for more than a month in an emergency bid to ward off the spread of the novel coronavirus, in a sweeping decision that temporarily upends life for tens of thousands of students, parents, teachers and staff in the region's largest school districts, the head of Buffalo Public Schools said Sunday.

Effective immediately, most or all schools in Erie County will be closed to students and activities through April 20, as teachers switch to online, distance learning through technology to maintain their students' education but without exposing the students or staff to the risk of COVID-19.

The decision late afternoon Sunday, announced by Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash, followed a conference call between Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, officials from both Erie 1 and Erie 2 BOCES, and the region's school superintendents. It reinforced or revised a mixture of decisions made earlier in the day and the weekend by many private schools and public districts on their own, uniting the entire region under a single coordinated plan.

It was a radical change in particular for Buffalo Public Schools, which on Friday had already announced their intention to close, but only for Monday, with a review to follow. Now, they and most others will be closed for five weeks.

Cash said it's also possible that the closings could be extended another four weeks after that, and state tests may be postponed or even waived. "We are in a state of emergency," Cash said. "This is a global impact event. Business is not usual at all. For everything."

The collective action culminated a day of upheaval and emergency declarations that began with disclosures that three people have tested positive for COVID-19. The individuals, who were not identified, live in Buffalo, Clarence and Grand Island. And in at least one case – in Clarence – a child living in the same household also attends a public elementary school.

Erie and Niagara counties declared states of emergency on Sunday morning and early afternoon, respectively, and advised or directed their schools to shut down for at least a day in Erie County and indefinitely in Niagara. Other municipalities, including the Town of Amherst and the City of Buffalo, followed up with their own emergency declarations.

The county executive also urged families not to go out for other activities in lieu of school. "With the closure tomorrow, STAY HOME," Poloncarz tweeted. "This is not a safe time for children to cluster together in public places outside of school."

Local school districts and independent schools quickly began falling in line, issuing their own proclamations of closures beginning Monday and extending for days, weeks or even without end. That allows the schools time for cleaning of the buildings and a re-evaluation of the situation.

However, that left a piecemeal patchwork of inconsistency that left many people puzzled and confused. And it worried Poloncarz and Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, who 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 an earlier press conference, adding that closing schools has minimum impact on the spread of the virus.

Poloncarz – who said he spoke with leaders at Kaleida Health, ECMC and Catholic Health in the past week – said one high-ranking hospital administrator warned that up to 20% of his employees may be unable to come to work while schools remain closed. He's received similar information from a local police department, and expressed worry that the community would be "seriously impacted" if there isn't "adequate staff for health care and public safety."

“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. “We cannot afford to have staff at a large amount disappearing from health care organizations in the near future.”

By contrast, the collective action is consistent, sets a clear end date and covers all of Erie County, as well as Chautauqua County and part of Cattaraugus County. Niagara County had ordered its schools closed earlier in the day.

"It is clear to me that I do not want to wait for an infection of any student, any staff," Cash said during an impromptu press conference. "This decision needs to be made. We are all in agreement ... We will get it done together."

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."

And he expressed particular concern for the welfare of teachers and staff, since children so far have not generally fallen ill. "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. Those schools also may be kept open for those kids whose parents are unable to stay home with them, although "I don't see how keeping schools open reduces contact."

He said schools will still provide two meals a day for up to 45,000 to 50,000 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 began putting out their own announcements confirming the decision during the evening on Sunday.

Williamsville Central School District, for example, had issued a bulletin to all families and students about 90 minutes after Poloncarz's emergency declaration, saying it would be "closed to students indefinitely beginning Monday, March 16, 2020." The emailed notice from Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff said the district would "reevaluate the length of the school closure" on Friday, which meant students would be off for the entire week, but not necessarily longer.

By early evening, however, that had changed, with a revised statement saying the closure would extend until April 20. Administrators and non-teaching staff were asked to come in on Monday, however.

Others followed suit, and indicated that the closings were consistent across all Erie County school districts.

Private schools also closed, but not as consistently. Elmwood Franklin and Nichols schools had earlier announced their intention to close and shift to online distance learning, through April 12, while Nardin Academy and Mount St. Mary Academy said they would shutter for two weeks, through March 29. The Park School of Buffalo joined them on Sunday, effective through April 19, followed by Canisius High School, St. Mary's High School in Lancaster and St. Francis High School, also through April 19-20.

Some still went further, however. Both the Grand Island Central School District and the Clarence Central School District will be closed "until further notice."

County health department workers learned that a child in the household of one of the three COVID-19 cases attends Clarence Center Elementary School.

According to a statement from Poloncarz Sunday afternoon, the child has no symptoms, but attended school last week, and is now being tested along with other family members. Results are expected Monday.

"We will reevaluate the length of the closure as more information becomes available," Clarence Schools Superintendent Geoffrey M. Hicks.

The school district will "engage in deep cleaning" of all school buildings on Monday. County officials said that additional actions "will be taken to ensure the safety of the students, teachers and other staff."

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."

(Erie County)

"This district is ready and prepared to fulfill our mission," he tweeted separately.

That include plans "to engage our children in thinking and learning during the period that we are closed," as well as to "remain in contact with and to support" those students who rely on "the emotional health supports that our schools provide." The contingency plans also include alternative school meals for those who want or need breakfast or lunch, and initiatives to sanitize each of the schools and buses.

Specific details "will be forthcoming," Vallely wrote.

"Despite our physical separation from your children, we will do all we can to remain present in their lives and to fulfill our district’s mission," he added. "We will get through this very difficult time."

And St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute said in an online posting that it would close indefinitely and "institute our distance learning plan." It noted that no one in the school community has tested positive for the virus, but cited "an abundance of caution and for the safety of our faculty, staff and students,"

School President Chris Fulco said school officials would "monitor the COVID-19 crisis on a daily basis," but "we anticipate this being a multi-week closure." The private Catholic preparatory school said it suspended all extracurricular activities and sports during that time.

Fulco said students will "not be expected to check in online with teachers" on Monday but that the building would be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for students to get any materials from lockers that they would need during the distance learning period. Students will also be able to consult with the school's technology department to "address any issues" with their laptop, iPad or any "programs and platforms" that they would be using.

Teachers will use Monday "for last-minute preparations for our conversion to distance learning," which would begin Tuesday, Fulco added. Attendance will be taken daily based on completion of assignments. He noted that Friday is a previously scheduled professional development day, which will remain in place, with students having the day off and school administrators and teachers taking the day to evaluate the first week and make adjustments as needed.

More information would be sent out later this week, but he asked parents for their help. "Your assistance at home will give a huge boost to the success of these distance learning efforts," Fulco wrote. "As much as possible, we want them to strive to replicate the rhythms and routines of a regular school day, albeit in a much different environment than our school building."

And he stressed the importance of personal responsibility for students. "If you’re waking up late, wasting away the day on non-school-related activities, and then starting your school work later at night, you’re not doing this the right way," Fulco said.

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