School & District Management

How to Respond to Coronavirus: 6 Steps for Schools

By Mark Lieberman — March 02, 2020 4 min read

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

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

[2021-2022] Founding Middle School Academic Dean
New York, NY, US
DREAM Charter School
Hiring Bilingual and Special Education Teachers NOW!
Newark, New Jersey
Newark Public Schools
DevOps Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
User Experience Analyst
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association

Read Next

School & District Management One District's COVID-19 Journey: A Year of Upheaval and Unexpected Insights
The Everett, Wash., school district was among the first in the nation shuttered by the pandemic. Educators and parents share and reflect.
9 min read
School & District Management The Key to School-Based COVID-19 Testing: Cooperation of Parents and Communities
As schools launch broad testing to track cases of COVID-19, the success of their efforts relies on addressing the concerns of all concerned.
7 min read
Katie Ramirez, left, watches as her mother, Claudia Campos, swabs the mouth of her sister, Hailey, for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Los Angeles on Dec. 9, 2020.
Katie Ramirez, left, watches as her mother, Claudia Campos, swabs the mouth of her sister, Hailey, for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School & District Management Interactive A Year of COVID-19: What It Looked Like for Schools
This timeline offers a look at how a full year of living and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.
Education Week Staff
13 min read
Elementary 1 teacher Melissa Vozar sits outside of Suder Elementary in Chicago to teach a virtual class on Jan. 11, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union said that its members voted to defy an order to return to the classroom before they are vaccinated against the coronavirus, setting up a showdown with district officials who have said such a move would amount to an illegal strike.
Elementary 1 teacher Melissa Vozar sits outside of Suder Elementary in Chicago to teach a virtual class on Jan. 11, 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union said that its members voted to defy an order to return to the classroom before they are vaccinated against the coronavirus, setting up a showdown with district officials who have said such a move would amount to an illegal strike.
Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP
School & District Management Most Principals, District Leaders Predict Their Schools Will Be Fully In-Person This Fall
EdWeek Research Center surveys track the growing trend to get more students back in school buildings as soon as possible.
5 min read
Assistant Principal Janette Van Gelderen, left, welcomes students at Newhall Elementary in Santa Clarita, Calif on Feb. 25, 2021. California's public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state Legislature if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March, according to a new agreement announced Monday, March 1, 2021, between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's legislative leaders.
Assistant Principal Janette Van Gelderen, left, welcomes students at Newhall Elementary in Santa Clarita, Calif., last month. California's public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP