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Volunteers deliver meals to the homes of quarantined students who attend a school for children with significant disabilities on Chicago’s north side.

USA TODAY

CHICAGO – By day five of her at-home quarantine, Emma Burkhalter lost it.

She already had done manicures and pedicures with her mom, read books and watched her favorite shows on Disney+. But the sudden halt to all normal school and social activities since March 7 finally bubbled up to a physical outburst, one of many her mom anticipates subduing while Burkhalter stays home for two weeks because an aide at her school tested positive for the coronavirus. 

“My daughter is combatant because she can’t go out and play,” said Erin Folan, the mother of Burkhalter, who is 20 and has an intellectual disability.

As the pace of virus-related school closures quickens nationwide, the shuttered Jacqueline B. Vaughn Occupational High School, which serves students with special needs in Chicago, has become an extraordinary test case for the restrictive new reality soon to be felt by millions of kids and families across the country. 

Before Friday, Vaughn was the first and only Chicago Public School to close because of the virus. Staff and students were ordered to quarantine themselves at home and monitor their health from March 7 to March 19. Now the school’s more than 200 students and their families will be away from school even longer.

Twenty-six states and counting, including Illinois, have ordered public schools to shut down for two weeks or more to contain the spread of COVID-19. For many, that will start Monday, though Illinois’ shutdown, which includes Chicago, will begin Tuesday. The state closures, along with those of individual districts, will affect at least 29.5 million students nationwide – more than half of American schoolchildren – according to a tally kept by Education Week magazine. The unprecedented disruption will upend work schedules, day care and social activities and challenge many families financially.

School closings: Growing number of states and large districts shut all K-12 schools

Most of Vaughn’s students ordered to stay home cannot be left alone, which means parents are juggling schedules – or missing work entirely – to care for their children. Friends who usually come by to help are keeping their distance, increasing the pressure on families and adding to the social stigma of those who have been near someone with the virus.

One of the most immediate effects: The families are in a bind financially and running low on supplies.Fundraising drives to raise money for Vaughn’s parents, and to deliver food and cleaning supplies to their homes, have been organized by both Chicago Public Schools and state Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, a Democrat, who lives near the school. 

The school’s closure is also putting a halt to the students’ academic progress.Vaughn’s students require a lot of one-on-one help, which limits their ability to learn online – the kind of programs some schools are planning to implement as their buildings shut down.

Because Vaughn students have potentially been exposed to someone with the virus, they are not supposed to leave their homes or attend therapy sessions or regular group activities. That has left parents struggling to find ways to entertain their children.

“You can’t Netflix them all day,” said David Wisneski, whose daughter, a Vaughn student, has an intellectual disability. 

“I wish we had more guidance on how to better engage our special-needs kids, since e-learning is not an option,” Wisneski said. “How can we get help?”

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Folan, a bartending manager, had to take off all week to care for her daughter. After day five of the quarantine, she was still forgetting what activities were off-limits.

“I was going to take her to the library when she ran out of books, but then I thought, ‘Nope, I can’t do that either,’ ” she said.

These students are vulnerable, but the virus has not spread

Vaughn epitomizes how little is known about how the virus spreads and infects people.

Unlike schools nationwide that preemptively shut down or closed because of a confirmed infection in the community, Vaughn had an aide with the infection working side-by-side with students and staff in the building.

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The aide, a woman in her 50s, had been on a Grand Princess cruise with confirmed cases of the virus, but she didn’t show symptoms until much later. After that, two of her family members contracted the virus.

Anyone at Vaughn around the time the aide was in the building was ordered to quarantine themselves at home, starting March 7.

Many worried that Vaughn kids might be more susceptible than other children to contracting the virus, as some students have respiratory issues. Yet as of Friday, no other students or staff showed symptoms. Staff and students on quarantine must take their temperature twice a day and send the readings to the state health department.

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“Currently, we’re celebrating and also relieved that we have no other positive cases yet,” said Noel McNally, Vaughn’s principal.

While students must stay at home, their family members can come and go freely.

Folan said she’s still surprised that Vaughn’s students and staff are all healthy.

“It’s the worst population for something like this to happen, because a lot of our kids don’t know how to blow their noses or wash their hands properly, and they’re constantly touching each other. When they sneeze it goes everywhere,” she said. 

Are kids at risk? WHO report says no, but some doctors aren’t so sure

‘I’m a single mother’: Low-income families struggle

Schools in America serve as more than just education centers – they feed more than 20 million children with free or reduced-price meals.

About 75% of Vaughn’s students come from low-income families who rely on those meals. Plus, the quarantine has put additional pressure on families: Some parents said that taking off work to care for their children is putting their job at risk.

Guadalupe Tafolla, a mother of a Vaughn student, had to take off from her job at McDonald’s to care for her daughter. Friends she usually relies on for help, she said in an interview in Spanish, are afraid to come to the house.

“It’s hard because I’m a single mother and I have to care for my daughter,” she said. 

The district has hustled to funnel resources to Vaughn families. As of midweek, the district had packaged at least 500 boxes of food for pickup or delivery to students’ families. That level of support will be hard to replicate at scale in low-income districts across the country as schools close.

McNally, who has been carrying out his principal duties from home during his own quarantine, said he’s been contacted by parents who can’t work and who are worried about losing their jobs. He said he and the district are offering to document the circumstances to employers so their parents can stay employed.

“This is beyond the scope of CPS,” McNally said. “What’s the federal support for businesses dropping staffing?” 

Online instruction not an option for many districts

Some districts across the country are making plans to offer online instruction to students during the closures.

But many have instead ordered what amounts to an extended spring break. That’s the plan for many impoverished districts, because it’s difficult to guarantee equal access to instruction to low-income families who may not have the computers and high-speed internetenjoyed by higher-income households.

“There’s no school district in the country that’s prepared to offer online instruction that parallels what happens face to face in classrooms,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City.

“There are tremendous inequalities among families when it comes to access and availability of technological tools,” he added.

Some districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and Newark Public Schools in New Jersey, are sending students home with packets of material to work through. 

Federal law says even in times of crisis, students with disabilities need equal access to a free and appropriate public education. But the realities of doing that now are very difficult, school leaders say.

“I have to reiterate how different the Vaughn environment is,” Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, said in a news conference last week. “Many require the assistance of special education teachers to do their work, so we can’t expect the same thing we do in other schools with take-home assignments.” 

Bovena Stasiak, a Vaughn parent whose son is quarantined at home, will continue to look for ways to occupy him during the extended break. It’s hard because even long walks are out, she said. He’s bored. He loves to talk to people and go places, Stasiak said, but that’s off limits, too.

“I don’t want him to put anyone in danger,” she said.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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