Delaware public schools will close for two weeks starting Monday, the state announced late Friday evening.
Gov. John Carney directed schools to close from March 16 through March 27 "out of an abundance of caution," in a letter sent to district and charter school leaders.
Over the next two weeks, the state will work with school leaders and public health experts to better prepare Delaware students and educators as the coronavirus outbreak continues.
"We will specifically prepare for the potential impact of extended school closures on Delaware children and their families," Carney said in the letter.
Schools will also undergo deep cleaning during the two weeks.
By limiting events and other gatherings, state officials are trying to avoid a rapid spike of cases that could overwhelm the health care system.
At the start of the week, when there were no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Delaware, school districts were only just rolling out pandemic preparedness plans.
But as the number of cases grew to four — all connected to the University of Delaware — so, too, did the number of schools announcing temporary closures or plans for online instruction.
The four cases are considered to be presumptive positive until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts confirmatory tests.
Universities and colleges in the region were the first to make the jump to online learning this week. Meanwhile, a handful of private and charter schools began to close doors for deep cleaning and to prevent spread of the virus.
All the while, parents and teachers wondered, when will Delaware's public school system follow suit?
Throughout the week, district superintendents met with state officials from multiple departments to best decide how to move forward. Districts were told by the state they "should be
preparing for what happens should a closure come," said Dr. Kara Odom Walker, secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.
Making the call to close involved a number of logistical decisions across local and state departments. Districts worked through curriculum planning and what would need to happen should the transition to online learning be needed.
In addition, school leaders needed to ensure vulnerable students like those from low-income homes or with special education needs would still be accommodated.
School closure sheds greater light on existing inequalities in Delaware's public school system. Not all children have internet access at home. For some children, going to school means a safe place to stay for the day, as well as the difference between whether or not they'll eat.
Also, not all parents are able to find or afford childcare for an extended period of time.
"We will be working with districts to plan for providing learning opportunities and other meal and social services in the event of an extended closure," Carney said.
Friday afternoon, many parents began receiving calls from school nurses asking if stored medications should be sent home with students.
In a message to parents Friday, Sussex Technical School District warned parents that while no decision had been made yet, "school closures at some point will be inevitable."
"We may not have much advance notice," district superintendent Stephen Guthrie wrote to parents. "Please help your family prepare for that possibility."
Neighboring states, which had confirmed cases of COVID-19 earlier than Delaware, quickly began shutting down schools throughout the week.
In Maryland, public schools are closed for the next two weeks. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all schools close for two weeks beginning Monday. And in New Jersey, the closure of public schools is "inevitable," Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday.
Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. Have a story about schools to share? You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.