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Schools Should ‘Minimize Disruption’ Over Coronavirus, CDC Official Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 03, 2020 3 min read
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Schools might need to change how they operate in the face of the coronavirus, but should also resist significantly disrupting the lives of students and educators, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told members of a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director at the CDC, also told lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that while federal agencies provide “guidance” on this issue, ultimately the decisions about things like school closures are made at the local level.

Her comments came as Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., raised the issue of what the best practices are for schools if a student or someone else tests positive for the virus. “One of the biggest disruptions that can happen in a family’s life is the closure of a school,” Murphy said, noting how difficult it can be for a day, let alone for a week. “What’s the best protocol today?”

“Decisions about school dismissals, school closures, or changes in school policies are very much locally driven, but we provide guidance,” Schuchat told Murphy. “The general principle is to minimize disruption.”

Schools are at the forefront of dealing with the coronavirus, especially after a high school student in Washington state and a school employee in Oregon tested “presumptive positive” for it late last week. And districts are being urged to share their plans for dealing with it, discourage food sharing among students, and encourage that they wash their hands properly. But taking steps such as closing schools might not be as straightforward as some believe.

See Our In-Depth Coverage: Coronavirus and Schools

Schuchat stressed that students who are ill, whatever they might have, should stay home from school. But she said that, broadly speaking, there are different factors schools must consider.

“You have this balance between, the earlier you act the more impact it can have in slowing the spread, and the enormous disruption we see with school closures,” she told Murphy. During the spread of the H1N1 virus in 2009, she noted, hundreds of thousands of students were sent home in the first few weeks of the pandemic, but she said that proved to be too disruptive, particularly as more was learned about H1N1 and its spread. (More than 700 schools closed in response to H1N1, according to one study.)

She said that as in 2009, schools may want to take steps such as cancelling assemblies and changing other aspects of what’s done during the school day, but otherwise to keep classes going, adding, “So many depend on school lunches and other services that are at schools.” Education leaders must keep in mind parents “who will be staying home if their kids are home,” she noted.

“It’s a local decision. If there’s too many people sick, of course, you can’t keep going,” Schuchat said.

Congress and the Trump administration are negotiating an emergency supplemental spending bill to provide resources for fighting coronavirus, although the two sides haven’t agreed on a final dollar amount.

Earlier in the hearing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute Of Allergy And Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that children are being diagnosed with the coronavirus “to a much lesser extent than adults, and for reasons that are still unclear.” Specifically, there are very few cases of the coronavirus in children under the age of 15, he said. However, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., subsequently shared his view that it’s “improbable” that children simply aren’t being infected.

Schuchat told him that children may be asymptomatic in many cases, and Fauci added that more information from China about the coronavirus might help health officials understand this issue better.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee’s top Democrat, indicated that she will be pressing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for more information about the U.S. Department of Education’s response to the virus. Murray and several of her Democratic colleagues wrote a letter to DeVos on Monday asking for details about her department’s response to the virus, how it was working with other federal officials, and other questions.

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