Northam to order closure of Virginia schools

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday ordered all schools in Virginia to close for at least two weeks as the coronavirus spreads, a move that follows similar orders in several other states.

Schools will close Monday until at least March 27, Northam said in a statement.

“We are taking this action to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as possible, and to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” Northam said. “I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus.”

Northam’s decision follows the near doubling of coronavirus cases in the state. Virginia has 30 people who have tested positive, up from 17 a day ago, The Virginia Department of Health said Friday.

Seven of the new cases are in northern Virginia, according to the health department. Another five are in James City County near Williamsburg, and the final new case is in Harrisonburg,

In all, 17 of the 30 cases are in Northern Virginia. Ten of the 30 cases have required hospitalization.

Northam declared a state of emergency Thursday and said he was canceling all state conferences and large events for the next 30 days. He urged local governments and private organizers to follow suit. He also announced new restrictions on travel for state workers.

Dr. Lilian Peake, the state epidemiologist, said Thursday there is so far no sign of “community spread” of the virus in Virginia.

The coronavirus has infected around 136,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,000. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people who contract it recover within weeks.

Before Northam’s announcement on Friday, schools systems in the state were struggling with the decision on whether to remain open. Virginia’s largest school system had defended its decision to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic only to capitulate hours later in the face of angry parents, exemplifying the difficult decision schools faced throughout the state.

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand appeared at a news conference Thursday afternoon and defended the decision to stay open, even though neighboring Loudoun County and the entire state of Maryland, just across the Potomac River, announced plans for an extended closure.

By 8 p.m. Thursday, the superintendent emailed a note to all parents with a quote from the county’s health director supporting his decision to stay open. She noted that all of the cases in Virginia, so far, could be traced to international travel or direct exposure to someone with the virus. Maryland, on the other hand, had seen its first case of “community spread” in which a person had contracted the illness without such a direct connection.

“Schools serve an important and vital function in our community. Keeping schools open, whenever possible, is critical at this time,” said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu. “If, and when, it is determined that our contact investigations show any connection to the school system, we would provide closure guidance and recommendations.”

Brabrand did, though, announce cessation of all after-school activities, sports, and community use of the schools through April 12.

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