By Mark Lieberman
Cases of the novel coronavirus have begun to hit K-12 schools, and it’s likely more will appear in the coming days as evidence mounts of the disease’s spread beyond people who have recently traveled abroad. Schools in states with confirmed cases have begun closing, either to help limit the spread or to test out remote-learning capabilities in the event a longer closure is necessary.
There’s still a lot that’s unknown about the disease. Children have largely not been severely affected thus far, but scientists have yet to determine to what extent they contribute to the disease spreading to more vulnerable populations. The fatality rate for COVID-19 thus far (between 1 and 2 percent) outstrips the more typical influenza virus (0.1 percent on average), but that might be in part because it’s difficult to detect the disease in patients who aren’t exhibiting outward-facing symptoms, said Rachel Orscheln, an associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
It’s easy to imagine panicking at the thought of COVID-19 appearing in your district, but there’s plenty of information and resources available to take action. Start by reading the CDC’s full list of guidelines for schools.
Below are six critical steps K-12 leaders should follow if coronavirus emerges in your communities.
1. Defer to health department protocols.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes that “schools are not expected to make decisions about dismissal or canceling events on their own,” nor to screen students or staff to determine a COVID-19 diagnosis. All of those tasks are the purview of state and local health departments, which have liaisons who will work with school districts as cases arise.
When making contact with health department officials, schools should have some data ready to support their initial findings, said Em Stephens, a respiratory disease coordinator for the Virginia Department of Health.
That includes: the total number of students and staff; the number of students and staff who are ill or have been diagnosed with COVID-19; and the number of COVID-19 cases from the same classroom. That last number will help the health department determine whether there’s evidence of an outbreak or whether reported illnesses are a reflection of what’s happening in the community outside the school, Stephens said.
2. Develop a tentative plan for how school closures will work.
While it may be tempting to close schools as a preventative measure at the first sign of outbreak, such a decision could have “downstream” negative effects, Orscheln says. “It disrupts their normal routine, likely causes anxiety in the children, disrupts their educational process, and certainly impacts parents who now need to offer alternative child care which may not be readily available.”
Particularly when parents serve important community roles like health-care workers, emergency personnel, and firefighters, keeping them on the sidelines may do more harm than good. Once again, health department officials will help schools make decisions about when to close and for how long.
Health departments tend to focus on making recommendations for pre-emptive closures when evidence of an outbreak has emerged, in an effort to reduce the number of people who risk being affected, Stephens said. Reactive closures, typically driven by the availability of staff and resources to keep school open, tend to be decided by the schools and district themselves.
3. Monitor absenteeism patterns.
An abnormal spike in absences over a short period of time can be an indication that disease of some kind is quickly spreading in the school. Health departments will be particularly interested in finding out how many of those absences appear to be connected to respiratory illnesses like the common cold or “the flu,” which share symptoms with COVID-19 including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. During this period, the CDC recommends, “perfect attendance awards and initiatives” should be actively discouraged.
4. Clean routinely.
“Viruses can live on surfaces for a long time after they’ve been touched,” Orscheln said. It’s important for schools to routinely clean high-touch surfaces—the CDC mentions doorknobs, light switches, and countertops. The American Chemistry Council’s Center for Biocide Chemistries has put together a list of products that have been pre-approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use in situations like this.
5. Create communications plans.
Providing staff, parents, and students with as much information as possible will help prevent misconceptions from taking hold. School districts also need to keep in mind privacy restrictions and the importance of confidentiality when sharing the latest details on the status of people who have the disease, clearing all correspondence with health officials.
Virginia’s health department is working on developing documentation that school districts may be able to use as models rather than having to start from scratch, Stephens said. “Any information they put together is always a great resource,” she said.
6. Consider limiting big-group gatherings.
As COVID-19 spreads, it might be prudent to limit people’s exposure to large groups of people. To that effect, the CDC recommends putting together grab-and-go bagged lunches or meal delivery options for students, rather than having everyone congregate in a cafeteria. The CDC has previously recommended spacing out students’ desks by at least three feet as a mitigation measure.