Coronavirus Hits Schools: Student, School Employee Among the Likely Infected

By Denisa R. Superville — February 29, 2020 3 min read
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As the number of U.S. cases of coronavirus increased through the weekend, the third case with a direct connection to K-12 schools emerged in Rhode Island, the Boston Globe reported.

A 40-year-old man who had traveled to Europe on a trip with a Catholic high school in Pawtucket, R.I., has tested “presumptive positive” for the virus after returning from a trip to Italy, France, and Spain in mid-February, state health officials said.

That case follows health officials announcing Friday night that a student in suburban Seattle and a school employee in suburban Portland, Ore., are among the new suspected coronavirus cases in the U.S.

The cases, reported late Friday, concern health officials because in both instances, it’s unclear how the two school-connected individuals contracted the virus. In both cases, neither individual had traveled to countries where there are outbreaks of the coronavirus or had contact with individuals who had done so.

Those are worrisome signs that the coronavirus is spreading from “person-to-person” in the community.

“It’s concerning that this individual did not travel, since this individual acquired it in the community,” Washington state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy, said at a press conference announcing two new cases in the state, according to the Seattle Times. “We really believe now that the risk is increasing.”

Officials said that they got “presumptive” positive tests in both of the cases. Final results still must be confirmed by the federal Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

On Saturday afternoon, a person infected with coronavirus died, Washington state officials said. It is the first U.S. death from the virus. A second death from the virus, also in the state, came later in the weekend.

The Washington state high school student, who attends Henry M. Jackson High School in the Everett school district north of Seattle, felt sick Monday and visited two clinics during the week. The student felt better and returned to school briefly Friday, but went home after the test showed the positive results, according to the Seattle Times.

Students who had contact with the sick student are undergoing a 14-day quarantine and monitoring periods at their homes, the Everett school district said in an update on its website.

The student’s sibling attends a district middle school and was also being tested and quarantined, although they showed no symptoms of the disease, the district said.

The district said it was taking the situation “very seriously,” and that out of an abundance of caution it would close the school through March 2, for three days of “deep disinfecting.”

In Oregon, it was an employee of the Forest Hills Elementary School in the Lake Oswego School District, close to Portland, who had a “presumptive” positive test, health officials said late Friday.

Lake Oswego officials are closing the 430-student K-5 school for “deep cleaning” through March 4, according to Oregon Live. The employee is being isolated at a local hospital while receiving treatment there.

In a news conference Saturday, Lake Oswego Superintendent Lora de la Cruz said public health officials said it was not necessary to close other schools in the district. But she said all schools and buses would be cleaned and disinfected before students return to schools Monday morning

The affected employee, de la Cruz said, “at this point, it appears that this person likely only had close contact with a few individuals.”

Learn More: Coronavirus and Schools

Who Has Authority to Close Schools in Public Health Crisis?

Earlier this week, officials with the CDC said that Americans should be prepared for the inevitable spread of the coronavirus in the country and urged schools to prepare their responses to the likely outbreaks.

So far, 65 cases of the coronavirus have been reported in the U.S., with the majority of those cases involving Americans who had contracted the disease abroad in areas that are affected by the outbreak.

They recommended that the public contact their employers and school systems about their plans in the event of an outbreak.

While school districts have been posting notices on their websites largely focused on preventative measures that parents, students, and staff can take to minimize the risks of contracting coronavirus, it’s unclear whether they have concrete plans on how to keep a system running in the long term if they’re required to shut down.

And just who will ultimately make the call about widespread school closures is an important issue for district leaders to get clarity on. A 2008 research paper that examined the legal and logistical issues concluded that most states have multiple legal avenues for ordering school closures. Mark Walsh has much more on that here.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.