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Governor closes schools for two weeks

Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday ordered all schools in Virginia to close for a minimum of two weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic as the number of cases in the state has nearly doubled from just the previous day, and President Trump declared a national emergency.

The governor’s announcement covers public and private schools, according to Alena Yarmosky of the governor’s office. The announcement came a day after he declared a state of emergency, and the same day the number of presumptive positive cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, rose from 17 to 30, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Ten people have been hospitalized in the state, and no one has died.

The decision to close schools also comes a day after Northam had advised school divisions to make their own decisions on closing schools based on guidance from local public health officials.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control on Friday reported 1,629 positive or presumptive positive COVID-19 cases and 41 deaths. The number of positive cases has increased by more than 400 people in a day, and five more people have died.

“We are taking this action to keep Virginians as safe and health as possible, and to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” Northam said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, says that modeling data indicates that early, short-to-medium closures have little impact, but that longer closures of at least eight weeks, further into community spread, may have “some impact.”

CDC modelling shows that handwashing and self-isolating “have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures,” and said in its guidance for school closure that other countries that have closed school have not had more success in reducing COVID-19 spread than those that did not.

James City County, an area that includes the city of Williamsburg, has reported seven presumptive positive COVID-19 cases, the most in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The northern Virginia counties of Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Spotsylvania counties have a combined 17 presumptive positive cases, with an additional one in Alexandria. There are also individual COVID-19 cases in Harrisonburg, in western Virginia, Hanover County, near Richmond, and in Farmville, at Longwood University.

Virginia Beach has reported two positive COVID-19 cases. The Western Tidewater Health District, which includes the cities of Suffolk and Franklin, as well as Isle of Wight and Southampton counties, has not yet reported a COVID-19 case.

The governor said the closure would provide the needed time to clean and disinfect school facilities and slow the spread of the virus.

“This is a fluid and fast-changing situation,” Northam said. “We will do everything possible to ensure that students who rely on school nutrition programs continue to have access to meals, and that the disruption to academics is as minimal as possible.”

The Virginia Department of Education is working with school divisions and the Department of Social Services to make sure students who receive free or reduced lunch programs are able to access those programs while schools are closed.

In Suffolk, nearly 50 percent of all students receive free or reduced meals, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition Programs.

At Booker T. Washington, Elephant’s Fork, Hillpoint and Mack Benn Jr. elementary schools, as well at John F. Kennedy Middle School, nearly all those students receive free breakfast and lunch each school day, as they participate in the Community Eligibility Provision under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The Department of Education is also working closely with school divisions to aid in minimizing disruptions and is encouraging schools to provide educational resources.

“We are committed to help divisions address all the implications of these closures and will seek to provide each division with maximum flexibility to address local needs as they arise, especially as it relates to make-up days,” said Dr. James Lane, state superintendent of public instruction in a statement.

The Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore is coordinating efforts to support low-income families, children and seniors, noting that more than 93,000 children across the region it represents — including Suffolk — are eligible for free or reduced meals. It said it is working with community partners to determine safe and effective ways to distribute food in high-need locations.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has asked state regulators to keep public utilities from cutting off power, water and gas to customers for non-payment during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Dominion Energy has suspended disconnections for non-payment during the coronavirus pandemic.