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School closures were inevitable, but we need exceptions for health care employees

The decisions to close schools in Erie and Niagara counties were not taken lightly, though, like most things connected to the novel coronavirus, they happened suddenly.

Some adjustments in the plans will need to be made.

The effects of shutting down schools through April 20 will ripple through the lives of thousands of families, including those of health care workers. That is one segment of the workforce we cannot afford to be without as COVID-19 cases multiply in Western New York.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein both expressed concern Sunday for putting child care strains on employees in the health care and public safety fields. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo voiced a similar sentiment when talking about deliberations over shutting schools in New York City.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, came up with a creative solution worth studying. Walz gave an executive order Sunday that his state’s K-12 schools would close to most students, this week through at least March 27, but the schools would remain open for the elementary school-aged children of nurses, doctors, first responders and others working to combat the public health emergency we face. The state is also asking day care centers to stay open.

An arrangement like that is complicated, but Minnesota will provide a test of whether it can be done. Health care is not only important to our well-being during these challenging times, it also represents a major employment sector in Buffalo Niagara. If some extra government funding is needed to keep some schools open for the coming months, it’s in our interest to find it. Minnesota has far fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than New York does, but its effort is worth watching and emulating. The county is seeking a way to resolve this issue.

While the needs of health care employees must be addressed, the Buffalo Public Schools deserve to be commended for rolling out a program to ensure that children from low-income households won’t go hungry while school is out of session. The Buffalo district announced that starting Tuesday, kids who qualify can receive a packaged lunch, plus a breakfast food for the following day. The meals will be distributed at approximately 50 schools throughout the city.

That removes one source of stress from the lives of families in low-income neighborhoods who face food insecurity, along with lack of access to computers or internet service at home due to cost, as well as the strains of figuring out child care when parents have jobs that don’t allow them to work remotely. These are vital considerations in a city with such persistent patterns of childhood poverty.

Spectrum’s program giving free internet service for 60 days to new subscribers with children in school will provide relief for some, though the offer leaves it to participating households to cancel the service after the trial period if they don’t want to pay for it.

Kriner Cash, the Buffalo schools superintendent, said Sunday that teachers would need to work on meaningful curriculum plans for long-distance learning and “not just worksheets.”

The best-laid lesson plans, however, won’t be enough if students in impoverished households are left behind by a lack of technological resources. One alarming outcome of the school shutdown will be if it drives a wider gap between haves and have-nots in all school districts, urban, rural or suburban. Once the coronavirus threat has passed, there will be a lot of catching up to do in our classrooms.

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