As confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus spread in the U.S. this week, school leaders nationwide are preparing for their worst-case scenario emergency plans. Some are already shutting down schools or considering online learning if the health threat persists.
And some are simply saying: Wash your hands.
So, who's right? Perhaps everyone.
District leaders are right to emphasize hand washing, staying home if you’re sick and covering your cough with a sleeve or tissue, school and health leaders said. But they should also disclose their emergency plans to parents about what will happen if the virus becomes more widespread — even if it unnerves families, leaders said this week.
Six patients with the virus had died in Washington state as of Monday night, and new infections were reported in California, Illinois, Rhode Island, New York and Florida over the weekend.
"Everybody is in a state of alert," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Domenech said his organization has advised superintendents to inform parents of their districts' emergency operations plans that may be carried out if the virus spreads.
"There's no soft-selling this," Domenech said Monday afternoon.
"Last week I saw some districts had sent out messages to families that were pretty mild — like, there's not much to be concerned about, this may not happen. That's not happening anymore. Now it's absolutely something to worry about and it's absolutely going to happen, it's just a matter of when."
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The virus is not yet a pandemic in the U.S., said Donna Mazyck, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. But because of the way it can spread, health officials are reviewing their emergency plans and figuring out what to do if the outbreak hits close to their regions.
"That is the key: How to prepare without panicking," Mazyck said.
CDC: Don't automatically close school. Some districts have anyway
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last week offered different guidance to schools and daycare centers depending on whether they have a locally identified case of COVID-19.
For institutions that don't have a confirmed case, the CDC said schools should review and update their emergency plans, emphasize hand-washing, communicate with local health departments and review attendance policies — including dropping rewards for perfect attendance.
For institutions located in areas with COVID-19 cases, the CDC recommends schools talk with their local health officials before canceling classes. Together, they can determine how long schools should be closed. And schools can also determine options for distance or online learning so kids don't fall behind.
Last week, a woman in Solano County, California, became the first confirmed patient in the U.S. to have become infected by the virus by way of community transmission, rather than via international travel or through close contact with a person known to be infected.
That's what kicked the latest planning into high gear — and ignited some parents' concerns about sending their kids to school, even though the virus has predominantly sickened older people.
Eileen Shihadeh, a parent of two students in Austin's public schools, said the Texas district so far has only told parents to take preventative measures, like covering coughs and sneezes. But Shihadeh is already considering when she would keep her kids home school, even without a directive from the district. She also might cancel the family's spring break trip to Oregon, because airports seem like a health hazard to her.
"As the worst-case scenarios are kicking in, especially with the CDC talking about the spread in the U.S. being inevitable, all of us (parents) are thinking about what we're going to do," said Shihadeh, who works for the school security company Raptor Technologies.
Schools should still wait for guidance from their local health officials before implementing "social distancing" practices for students or staff, said Pamela Kahn, president of the California School Nurses Organization.
As of now, Kahn said, schools in California have only been advised to consider excluding children from school for 14 days if they have traveled abroad to mainland China.
"In my head and in my heart, I don't think this virus is hitting kids, but I wouldn’t be blasé and tell parents not to worry," Kahn said.
In case they close, some schools are preparing for online classes
Some school district leaders are already planning for ways for children to learn from home, via online education options, in the event of long-term school closures from the virus.
Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the Miami-Dade County School District in Florida — the fourth-largest district in the country — said last week that the district was prepared to send children home with laptops and other personal learning devices so they could continue their studies at home.
"We've never had to consider online school before," O'Connell said. "But we were looking for alternatives, and (Outschool) seems to be dynamic — kids can ask questions in the moment."
O’Connell said he didn’t think they’d need to use the technology, but students' health and safety is the No. 1 concern, he said.
In the event of a school closure, he said, "There's also a huge cost to not doing anything."