Even as President Donald Trump sought to reassure the American public that the risk for the spread of coronavirus in the United States remains low, school districts are likely to be on the front lines in efforts to limit its impact.
Trump, who announced Wednesday night that Vice President Mike Pence will now oversee the federal government’s efforts to respond to coronavirus, said he believes that American schools should be prepared to respond.
“I think schools should be preparing,” Trump said in a response to a reporter’s question in the Wednesday night news conference. “Get ready just in case.”
Warnings earlier this week from federal health officials that the spread of coronavirus was “inevitable” in the U.S. has put many school officials on urgent notice.
Within hours of the warnings from officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Daniel Domenech, the president of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, was fielding calls and emails from superintendents seeking more information on what they should do.
“The superintendents, as you can imagine, are very nervous and very concerned about this,” Domenech said. “They are not health specialists, and, certainly, they are not specialists in epidemiology.”
They are looking for concrete details from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to respond, what to communicate to parents, when to actually shut down a school system if that becomes necessary, and other factors they should consider, Domenech said.
“It’s definitely something that’s keeping them awake at night,” Domenech said. “Are they prepared for it? Right now, they are operating on their own instincts, waiting for information on what to do and when to do it.”
During the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak in 2009, the AASA acted as a conduit of health information between districts and the CDC, sharing health updates and guidance from the federal agency with all superintendents and then sending back information from districts on things like suspected cases of infections and school closures related to the swine flu, Domenech said.
Domenech contacted the CDC on Tuesday, and he expected to receive guidance from the agency late Wednesday, which will be distributed to districts, he said.
The risk of contracting coronavirus in the U.S. remains low, according to health officials. As of Wednesday afternoon, about 60 cases had been confirmed in the country, with 15 of them detected in the country.
Some Districts Are Not Waiting on Feds
In the absence of concrete federal directives over the last month, districts have been working with the state and local health officials to come up with guidelines for students and families. Some have already canceled overseas trips—or declared a moratorium on study abroad programs.
They’ve developed online and take-home resources for students and parents on healthy practices to prevent spread of the flu, such as regularly washing hands for at least 20 seconds, coughing into elbows, and staying home if they feel sick. Many districts have direct links to the CDC’s website an as additional resource to their school communities. The Seattle district, for example, noted on its website that it was working with the county public health department and the city to share the most current health information with its community.
And the district stressed that although the coronavirus started in China, “having Chinese ancestry—or any other Asian ancestry—does not place a person at higher risk for this illness.”
The district has a large Asian student enrollment. A spokeswoman for San Francisco Unified said the district, through letters and information on its website, has shared tips with families and staff on preventing the spread of illness, along with the CDC guidance on self-quarantine.
And in the San Diego school district, officials had posted clear directives for how school staff should approach students and employees who recently traveled to China. For example, students or staff who’ve recently traveled to China “should be excluded from school only if that person has signs of a respiratory illness.”
Robust Plans in Some Districts
The Miami-Dade County district was already moving ahead with preparation efforts long before the statement from the federal health officials.
Shortly after it became clear in January that the coronavirus was spreading in China, Miami-Dade officials pulled out their pandemic plan, which the district has had since the early 2000s, and started updating it, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.
Education and prevention messages have been prevalent in the district since January, including on its website, social media, and messaging to parents, Carvalho said.
“I thought that it took a while for educational entities to be brought into this important narrative nationally,” he said. “If you think of one entity in most communities across America where you have large concentrations of individuals congregate periodically, every single day, and then go back to their respective communities, from a biological perspective, that should automatically ring an alarm bell in terms of preparation.”
Tips on good handwashing and hygiene techniques are posted in the district’s more than 400 schools. A section on coronavirus can be found on its website.
Since reviewing its pandemic plan, the district has added more hand sanitizer throughout the system, especially in places like the cafeterias and gymnasiums where large groups of students congregate. Sanitizers will be added to school buses—the first point of contact with the school system for many in the system—and at building entrances and exits.
In a situation where a student shows symptoms of the flu or coronavirus, the district can deploy a robotic tele-health device—essentially an iPad on a mobile platform—the school’s nurse can use to connect with medical experts at St. Nicklaus Children’s Hospital to help with remote diagnosis. The mobile devices will eliminate layers of communication and help the district and school official make critical decisions as quickly as possible, if necessary, Carvalho said.
The district got the devices years ago, and is now looking to get some more, Carvalho said.
“We did it especially for cases like these,” Carvalho said. “In the event of a flu, [where] three or four cases report to the office with the same types of symptoms, it is important to have a face-to-face conversation with health officials. And, more important than that, is the remote ability to be able to diagnose via a school clinic, through a nurse, who can in real time upload the results through this technology to hospitals. That’s going to be very, very helpful to us in Miami-Dade.”
The district’s experiences with hurricanes—including instances where it’s had to shut down for long periods but keep classes going—puts it in a good position to continue students’ learning if schools must be closed, he said.
The district has a 1:1 program, with devices that come with internet access for high school students who live in poor communities. It also has access to content from Florida Virtual School, which is grade and age appropriate and aligned to standards.
“It’s not going to be an exact replacement between that direct face-to-face interaction between [the teacher] and pupil,” Carvalho said, “but it is an alternative that will provide continuity of educational opportunity with these students. Less than ideal, but we do have the capacity and the means to do it. ”
Moving ahead, the district will soon add three- to five-minute lessons on coronavirus that will be delivered in class to tell students what they can do to prevent the spread of the illness and what they should do if they have symptoms.
There’s also telephone messages to parents and PSAs that Carvalho filmed.
“I really do believe in times like these, part of the preparation is effective communication—create a groundswell of information and awareness out to the community,” he said.
The district has also cancelled trips abroad, many of which were scheduled for countries that are now impacted by the virus. And it’s made changes to the way it registers newly enrolling students—they are now registered at one of two special sites where nurses can screen for illnesses. And students who arrive from countries with known outbreaks may be asked additional health questions, Carvalho said.
With high turnover in superintendents’ offices, this will be the first potential epidemic that many will be facing, Domenech said. And the needs may differ from community to community.
Those in rural communities, where healthcare may not be as readily available, superintendents will have to take that into consideration. And while technology has improved drastically in recent years making it easier for districts to continue classes even if schools are physically closed, access to computers and the internet vary from community to community.
While money may be a concern as schools ramp up prevention efforts, Domenech said that will not be the primary worry for district leaders.
“I assure you they will do whatever needs to be done,” Domenech said. “I don’t want to go as far as saying, ‘budgets be damned.’ But when it comes to making decisions about the lives of kids, they will make those decisions—budgets be damned.”
Districts also have to strike the right balance in their responses to avoid creating unwarranted fear and panic. There are things that need to be done now, and others that will become necessary as the need arises, Carvalho said.
For example, the district may have to consider eliminating or having fewer and smaller assemblies, staggering dismissal times so that there are fewer number of students leaving and entering at the same time, and increasing the frequency of cleaning.
“In conditions like these, there is a… delicate balance between awareness, information, preparation, avoidance and quite frankly over stimulating a concern that can lead to a certain degree of unwarranted… fear,” he said. “We don’t want that. We want to strike a balance.”
Still, Carvalho said school officials were already thinking about the preventative efforts that federal health officials mentioned on Tuesday.
They were practical, common-sense approaches.
“I cannot think of any one element of information specifically the guidance to schools that we had not contemplated over the past two months,” Carvalho said. “And I would dare say that most of my colleagues across the country would feel the same way—that this is what we prepare for, whether it is a hurricane, an outbreak, a lockdown of the school where you have to aggregate or separate students…We prepare and drill for that. This is a different type of circumstance, obviously, but it’s one within our radar of possibilities.”
An alternative version of this article appeared in the March 4, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Feds to Schools: Get Ready for Coronavirus