School Climate & Safety

School Districts Urged to Be Candid About Coronavirus Plans

By Denisa R. Superville — February 28, 2020 4 min read
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The AASA, the School Superintendents Association, is recommending that school districts increase cleaning schedules, discourage food sharing, and have teachers review proper hand-washing techniques with students in class amid concerns that the coronavirus may spread within the U.S.

The organization is also asking districts to be transparent with information about the coronavirus—especially in the event of a suspected case—and to develop policies for how that information will be shared with health officials and the school community.

The national association sent those recommendations and more to its members after federal health officials said that a spread of the virus was inevitable. President Trump, while downplaying the potential for an outbreak, said that schools should prepare, “just in case.”

Concerns about the spread of coronavirus are already hitting close to home for some districts. Northshore School District, near Seattle, closed a high school for disinfection on Thursday and Friday after an employee’s relative got sick and was being tested and monitored for the coronavirus.

While county and city health officials said the risk to students was low, Superintendent Michelle Reid decided to close the school and said she “did not make this decision lightly.”

The Seattle Times also reported this week that three staffers in the Shoreline school district, also near Seattle, were being monitored at home. None of the employees had shown symptoms and there was no confirmation that they had been exposed to the coronavirus, the paper reported.

As of Friday, 15 cases of coronavirus had been confirmed within the country, with an additional 40 or so cases of American citizens who contracted the virus abroad and were repatriated to the U.S.

The virus, COVID-19, which was first detected in China, had spread to at least 56 countries by Friday afternoon, according to The New York Times.

The AASA urged districts to ensure that school nurses were carefully monitoring students for signs of respiratory illnesses; that districts consider cancelling overseas trips and developing a system for reporting any cases to health officials; and that more dispensers of hand sanitizers be put in schools.

Districts should be also be careful not to stigmatize students and families based on their backgrounds, according to the organization.

That’s a real fear in some communities, especially in districts that have large numbers of students of Asian descent.

Districts like San Diego and Seattle have been very clear about messaging to their school communities that discrimination based on race and national origin will not be tolerated even as concerns are raised about the coronavirus.

The San Diego district, which has a pretty extensive list of the system’s policies on the issue, was very explicit that “students should not be excluded from school or any school activities based on race, country of origin, recent travel, including to any part of China,” except for very specific cases where students or staff who had visited China within the previous 14 days show signs of respiratory illness. School staff must take very specific steps in those instances.

San Diego said its nursing and wellness department will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in addition to those from local and state officials. It also has procedures for how a school nurse should address a situation if an individual who had recently traveled to China exhibited symptoms of a respiratory illness while on campus.

The district reminded the staff and community that students’ health information was confidential and was not to be shared with other students or staff at the school.

The message from the AASA mixes some of the commonsense approaches that the CDC recommends to halt the spread of respiratory illnesses, which the agency also suggests in this case. They include things like washing hands for at least 20 seconds, not touching one’s face and mouth, and staying home when one feels ill.

”...Remember, while the Coronavirus news is concerning, it is important to point out that there are other respiratory viruses like influenza currently circulating in schools,” the organization wrote. “Fever, coughing and difficulty breathing are symptoms associated with all of them. Therefore, anyone exhibiting these symptoms should not be assumed to have COVID-19.”

You can read the AASA’s letter here.

Image: A school janitor opens the door to a staff room inside Bothell High School, in the Northshore school district in Bothell, Wash., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. The suburban Seattle school was closed on Thursday after a staffer’s family member was placed in quarantine. The school will be cleaned and disinfected. Health officials said closing the school was unnecessary. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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