Student Well-Being

Teachers’ Union Gives Guidance for Schools on Coronavirus

By Arianna Prothero — February 11, 2020 4 min read
Some revelers wear face masks to guard against germs as they enjoy a Chinese New Year celebration in Brooklyn, N.Y., last month.
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The head of the American Federation of Teachers is calling on President Trump’s administration to provide educators and other groups of professionals who deal closely with the public more guidance on how to respond to the growing coronavirus threat.

In a press conference Feb. 4, which also included representatives from unions for nurses and flight attendants as well as a medical expert, AFT President Randi Weingarten said educators and school nurses need more specific instructions on what they should do to prepare for an increase in coronavirus cases in the United States.

Part of the problem is that there are gaps in the resources provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local state agencies, said Jacqueline Moline, the vice president of occupational medicine, epidemiology, and prevention at Northwell Health, a health-care network in New York.

“If we’re looking to the CDC for guidance, which we certainly should be ..., they’re often deferring to state agencies. And then if you go to the state, they refer you back to the CDC,” she said. “So, it’s an endless loop where you’re looking for concrete information that doesn’t seem to be there yet.”

The fact that the coronavirus shares many symptoms with the flu—and that it’s the height of flu season—complicates the situation for schools. But it also means that, most likely, a student with a fever and respiratory symptoms has the flu.

Moline recommends that if a child is running a fever at school to ask if they or a family member has recently been to China.

“If the answer is no, then in the United States right now they should be treated as ... you have the flu or you’ve got one of these bugs going around, because chances are, that’s what it is,” Moline said. “We need to make sure that we realize there have been 10,000 deaths from flu and 19 million cases of the flu so far this year here in the United States. That is what people in all likelihood will be presenting with, particularly if they have no travel history.”

There have been just over 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, according to the CDC, but no deaths at the time Education Week went to print.

Globally, there were more than 24,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and some 500 deaths, most of which are in China, according to the World Health Organization.

If a school nurse suspects a student may have coronavirus, the school should contact the state or local public health agency to report the case, according to guidelines put together by the AFT.

Moline and Weingarten also recommended that principals encourage sick students and staff to stay home and that there should not be any repercussions for doing so.

The AFT’s other recommendations for schools include:

•Evaluating ventilation systems to ensure they are delivering adequately fresh air to classrooms;

•Isolating students with fever and respiratory symptoms as much as possible from their peers until they can be picked up from school;

•Coordinating with the local health department to develop a response should the coronavirus spread in their community;

•Educating and providing students, staff, and parents with reminders—such as posters—on preventing the spread of virus including washing hands, not touching faces, and staying home when sick;

•Instructing custodial and classroom staff to follow appropriate disinfection practices that focus on keeping high-touch areas such as doorknobs disinfected without overusing cleaners that could harm students with asthma.

The AFT has compiled additional recommendations for school nurses and custodians.

Weingarten said the lack of information on how to respond to the coronavirus is contributing to panic and the likelihood of profiling people of Chinese descent. She said her core message to educators is this: “No panic, no profiling, and wash your hands.”

Although there are a handful of confirmed cases of coronavirus in this country, some schools have had to grapple with the possibility that their students were exposed.

In Florida’s Palm Beach County, a group of 30 high school students and three teachers were told to stay home after having been potentially exposed to coronavirus while attending a Model United Nations event at Yale University, according to local media. The last day of the event was canceled when a Chinese student was taken to a local hospital with a cough and a fever. The student turned out to have the flu, not the coronavirus, and the Palm Beach students and teachers have returned to school.

A charter school in Philadelphia also had a scare when a Chinese exchange student got sick, but tests later showed the student did not have coronavirus. The school, however, told parents it was ending the exchange program, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Finally, some schools in Arizona have been dealing with the opposite problem: coronavirus hoaxes, report local media. A fake breaking-news alert claiming that students who attend Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest district, had contracted the coronavirus was circulating on social media, forcing the district to warn families to be on the lookout for hoaxes.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Union Issues Guidance on Coronavirus

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