As the U.S. braces for a potential outbreak of the coronavirus, schools are grappling with a problem: How do you maintain a safe place for kids to gather and learn when the very act of gathering could make it unsafe?
The illness caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, has sickened 84,000 people around the world and killed about 2,800. Only one person has died of the illness in the U.S. out of a few dozen cases, but already the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned Americans to start preparing for it to spread.
A national outbreak isn’t a question of if, but when, the agency said Tuesday.
School administrators are now asking themselves what they can do to prevent shuttering entire districts and significantly disrupting families’ lives. Many districts have sent home letters to parents to assure them they are taking the virus seriously.
The top tips schools are giving are simple: Stay home if you feel sick. Wash your hands with antibacterial soap and water. Don’t touch your face. Disinfect common areas. Try not to share food.
The CDC is encouraging school administrators to keep local health officials apprised of any spikes in the number of people taking sick days.
As for perfect attendance awards? Ditch them, the agency says.
“Schools and classrooms are basically a breeding ground for germs. Kids come to school all the time with colds and fevers and all kinds of illnesses that the teachers get,” Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, told HuffPost.
Detecting COVID-19 is all the more difficult because its symptoms mimic those of the flu ― fever, cough and shortness of breath. Among the questions school districts are grappling with is precisely what they should do with a student who exhibits those broad symptoms that could signal a case of COVID-19. Should the student be kept at school until a parent picks them up, or should they be transported to a medical facility for testing?
“You have to do the best that you can for the sake of prevention. So that’s a judgement call,” Domenech said.
He added: “If somebody is sick, stay home. Don’t come to school. Maybe it’s not the coronavirus, but let’s not take a chance.”
In Northern California’s Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, administrator Tim Goree is looking for guidance from the Solano County Public Health Department and other schools in the U.S. and abroad that have experienced outbreaks of contagious disease. Earlier this week, officials confirmed that a patient held at a hospital near the district is believed to be the first case of community spread of COVID-19, meaning that it is not clear where or how she contracted it.
Goree said the district is stepping up its efforts to clean classrooms, aiming to disinfect individual desks more frequently instead of just the most commonly used surface areas. But he said it was still too early to give other examples of what the district will do to prevent the virus from affecting its schools. As of Friday, the county health department had yet to give out “any sort of rubric moving forward,” Goree said.
Districts across the country have similarly noted in letters to parents that they are looking to local, state and federal health authorities for guidance. They are also discouraging students and families from traveling abroad, and canceling long-distance school trips.
This week, the CDC warned that a more dramatic step ― school closures ― will likely be necessary to stop the spread of the virus in places across the country. Closure could come after just one student or teacher at the school contracts the virus, Domenech said, and could last for 14 days or longer.
Such a step, however, would hurt parents with limited or no ability to work from home or take days off, particularly for those in low-income households. Workers without paid sick leave make up about 30% of the private sector workforce.
“Right now, parents don’t have solutions for emergency child care problems,” Julie Kashen, the director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, told HuffPost this week. “They don’t even have solutions for everyday child care problems. This is just going to exacerbate the problems that already exist but also make stark economic inequalities.”
It’s a problem Goree is keeping in mind in Northern California.
“We are very sensitive to trying to keep schools open as long as possible so long as it is safe,” he said. Students in his district come from a wide variety of living situations, including some who are homeless or have no one to care for them during the day. At the same time, parents who are able to stay home during the day or otherwise provide child care are asking about take-home lessons.
Nancy Messonnier, a director with the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told parents on Tuesday to ask about plans for “teleschool,” although it was not clear how such a system would function. American students face uneven access to technology and internet connectivity that would be used to share lessons.
Ideally, teachers would be able to communicate lesson plans online, and students would be able to access assignments and learning materials there, too. Some districts, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, could offer laptops to students who need them for at-home learning. But without an internet connection, students could still face problems.
One solution is to go low-tech. By preparing paper packets of lessons and assignments, teachers can help students of all backgrounds continue their coursework until the threat of the coronavirus is at bay.
There’s also some good news for worried parents: A small amount of evidence out of China suggests that children may be less susceptible to COVID-19 to begin with.