School & District Management

How to Respond to Coronavirus: 6 Steps for Schools

By Mark Lieberman — March 02, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See Also

Coronavirus and SchoolsCoronavirus and Schools

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.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Polls About Lessons on Racism in Schools Can Be Eye-Opening, and Misleading
Opinion surveys may help district leaders host more-productive conversations, but how they're framed can lead to wildly different results.
11 min read
Hand holding smartphone with voting app. Online voting with mini people concept flat vector illustration with smartphone screen, voting box and voters making decisions.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Pandemic-Seasoned Principals Share Hard-Earned Leadership Lessons
The COVID crisis has tested principals’ resolve to an unprecedented degree, but many have gleaned valuable takeaways from the experience.
6 min read
Boat on the water with three people inside. Leader pointing  forward. In the water around them are coronavirus pathogens.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management This Intensive Internship Helps Principals Get Ready For the Job
A two-year program in Columbus City Schools gives aspiring principals the chance to dive deep into the job before actually taking the reins.
10 min read
Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School, talks with Katina Perry in Columbus, Ohio on November 30, 2021. Columbus City Schools has a program that lets principal “test out” the principal role, before actually fully taking it on. Through the program, they work in a school for two years under a mentor principal and fill in as principal at different schools during that time.
Katina Perry, right, principal of Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, meets with Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School and Perry's mentor in a school leader internship program.
Maddie McGarvey for Education Week
School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
mikdam/iStock/Getty