Coronavirus cases have now directly hit U.S. schools.
In Oregon, state health officials on Friday said a person who has “presumptively” tested positive for the virus had spent time in an elementary school outside Portland, possibly exposing students and staff there.
In Washington state, state health officials said a high school student in the Seattle area had gotten a “presumptive” positive test and had spent a brief amount of time on his campus this week. In a letter to families, the Everett Public Schools said that the few students who said they had contact with him were notified and will remain home for 14 days while being monitored for symptoms by county health authorities. The letter also said the student has a younger sibling who attends a middle school in the district. That child, who is not symptomatic, will be tested and remain out of school until the results come back “out of an abundance of caution.” District officials said that Jackson High School would be closed for three days for “deep disinfecting.”
In both cases, confirmation of the virus is pending by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus that was first detected in China’s Wuhan province has generated a crush of news coverage as it spreads across the world.
Nancy Messonnier, a top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, told reporters Friday: “There certainly is the possibility of additional cases, and we will continue to work aggressively to keep that number low. We hope that, if there is spread, it will be limited and any disease in the U.S. will be mild.”
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House Chief of Staff, predicted today during the Conservative Political Action Conference that “some schools” will “probably” close, though he cited no evidence and also criticized the news media for overhyping the outbreak.
It’s a big challenge to sort through all the information and what is most urgent for school officials.
Here’s a guide to things educators need to know right now.
1. Children, for the most part, aren’t showing symptoms.
Most confirmed cases of the disease have occurred in adults, according to the CDC. The agency has collected “limited reports” of children coming down with cold-like symptoms: “fever, runny nose, and cough,” but cases of more severe symptoms “appear to be uncommon.”
2. Medical practitioners (school nurses included) and the elderly could be particularly vulnerable.
A study of 44,000 people in China who have contracted the illness found that the largest number of patients are between 50 and 59 years old. The group with the highest risk of dying from coronavirus is senior citizens, with an increased risk corresponding to age and prior history of respiratory infections. Doctors and other medical workers also have a higher risk of exposure than the average American.
3. Superintendents are beginning to put emergency response plans and procedures in place. (At least one U.S. school pre-emptively closed Thursday.)
President Trump and the CDC this week encouraged schools to start thinking about how they would react in the event of a coronavirus surge.
Some districts have already begun taking action: canceling field trips and study abroad programs; developing resources and talking points to educate students and staff about the virus and how to help prevent its spread; dispersing hand sanitizer throughout campuses and school buses.
One school—Bothell High outside Seattle—closed Thursday and Friday after a staff member who recently returned from an international trip reported that a family member is ill. “At this time, there is no confirmation that the family member’s illness is connected to the coronavirus outbreak, but out of an abundance of caution, the family member is being tested,” according to the letter sent to families.
Other U.S. school systems are warning parents of the possibility of a closure and urging them to get child-care options in place. Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia told parents this week, “This preparation is recommended to be similar to a ‘Code Red’ weather event that may emerge without the ability for much prior notification, and without knowing the timing or duration in advance.” These warnings follow the indefinite closure of schools in China and the shutdown of schools in Japan until March, requested this week by the nation’s prime minister.
4. The number of novel coronavirus cases in the United States so far is extremely low.
The CDC reported earlier this week that one person in California appears to have contracted the disease despite not having traveled internationally or come into contact with someone who has. The discovery prompted the agency to begin sending out new testing guidance to medical facilities, in an effort to overcome what has been a shortage of available testing kits in the United States thus far.
It’s also worth noting, for the sake of mitigating panic, that of the 84,000 people worldwide who have contracted the virus, roughly 3 percent (about 2,900) have died.
5. Hand-washing is more important than ever—as is having the flu vaccine.
The number-one refrain from health officials at all levels has been consistent: Wash your hands, often and “with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing,” the CDC says. It might seem basic but it’s the easiest action any person can take to minimize the threat, and it’s good manners to boot.
The CDC also recommends making sure you’ve received this season’s flu vaccine; it won’t prevent coronavirus, but it will reduce the risk of contracting regular influenza, which means fewer people will need medical care at the same time as any coronavirus patients.
Other steps include avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth; staying home from work and school when you’re sick; covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and then throwing that tissue in a trash bin; cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched household objects. The CDC does not recommend that people who are not sick wear a protective mask.
6. The government’s messaging has been convoluted, but health officials have been clear: People should prepare for the situation to worsen.
Messonnier, the CDC official, said earlier this week that an outbreak is “inevitable” and severe disruption is likely. President Trump took a softer tone during an address to the nation on Wednesday night, and CDC director Robert Redfield told Congress on Thursday that the risk to the American public remains low, thanks to the agency’s “aggressive mitigation strategy.”
Given the rapid pace of global updates on the virus and its impacts, a uniform consensus may take a while to emerge. But there’s no harm in taking steps to prepare for an outbreak, if only to have procedures in place in the event they’re necessary.
7. E-learning could prove useful should the outbreak require prolonged closures.
Even if schools do close en masse for an extended period of time, instruction might not necessarily be interrupted for everyone. Schools that already have plans to put students online in the event of inclement weather may be able to take the same approach in the event of a coronavirus shutdown. Technology companies from around the world have already been helping schools in China maintain continuity for students, and Messonnier from the CDC recommended U.S. schools get “teleschool” options in place. Many American universities with outposts in China have also shifted to online education.
Virtual learning doesn’t solve the problem for everyone in K-12, though. Students in rural areas without internet access, and students who don’t have digital devices provided by the school, could be left behind during such a transition. And the level of anxiety among students and families in the event of a more serious outbreak could be heightened given the serious nature of the disease.
8. Decisions to close schools will be made by state and local officials.
Authority to close schools for circumstances such as a pandemic rests with state and local education and public health authorities. State laws vary, though, on who exactly could make the call, and whether there is a declared state of emergency can be a factor. Even the CDC, which has the authority to impose quarantines, urges school officials to consult with local and state health authorities.
9. Educators and administrators may need to confront racist comments or bullying toward Asian and Asian American students and staff.
The coronavirus outbreak’s origin in China has prompted a wave of unfounded fears of Asian and Asian-American people, including reluctance to eat at Chinese restaurants despite no evidence that they’re contaminated. In a Los Angeles County high school earlier this month, an Asian American student was physically attacked by fellow students who accused him of having coronavirus. Other students have reported being teased about having coronavirus after they cough or sneeze in school.
Some school districts with a large Asian and Asian-American population, such as Seattle Public Schools, have directly addressed this in communications with their students, staff, and families. In an update on its website, the district wrote: “We also ask everyone to be mindful that although novel coronavirus started in China, having Chinese ancestry—or any other Asian ancestry—does not place a person at higher risk for this illness. You can help keep our schools safe for everyone by sharing accurate information with your children and fellow community members.”
Contributing Writer Mark Walsh contributed to this report.