How do American schools prepare for the coronavirus?

(CNN) – As communities in the United States prepare for the new coronavirus, many wonder how they plan to respond to schools.

Millions of students in China, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Italy and elsewhere have been affected by the closure of schools in recent weeks in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

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And fears of an outbreak in the United States have already resulted in the closure of a handful of schools in the northwest, including Jackson High School in Snohomish County, Washington, where a child tested positive for the coronavirus. The school will be closed this Monday for cleaning.

An elementary school in Lake Oswego, Oregon, will also be closed until Wednesday for cleaning after an employee tested positive. That happened after Bothell High School, outside Seattle, closed for cleaning when a relative of the staff was examined for the coronavirus. That test was finally negative.

But it could be a sign of what is to come, and now, school districts are preparing for the possibility of their own communities seeing confirmed cases of the coronavirus. This is how they are preparing.

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Many focus on prevention and communication …

Schools and districts across the country have said they are in contact with their state and local health departments, who will advise school officials on best practices and next steps as the outbreak progresses.

Much of what school officials have said is common sense and applicable not only to COVID-19, the name of the World Health Organization for the disease caused by the coronavirus, but also to a more familiar threat: the flu .

The coronavirus is spreading “at a time when school nurses are already dealing with the flu season,” said Donna Mazyck, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. And as they would each flu season, schools and nurses focus on promoting prevention, said Mazyck.

These prevention methods include the basics, such as washing your hands for at least 20 seconds several times a day and staying home when you are sick. Students and teachers should avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth to prevent the spread of germs, and schools should wash and disinfect high-contact surfaces, such as door knobs and desks.

Communication, not only with health officials but also with students and families, is critical, said Mazyck. School nurses in particular can help relieve unnecessary anxiety, he said, especially when families constantly receive bad news.

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“The children respond to that,” he said.

Students and families should know the facts, he said. But it is important to keep “the conversation about what we can do instead of persevering in information that does not change but can cause fear.”

… and reviewing response plans

In addition, school districts are working to review and update their infectious disease response plans, Mazyck said.

Schools often already have these plans in place, Mazyck said. The 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic led many schools to review and implement some protocols, but these plans are often reviewed for the flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the USA. UU. They also have a planning checklist specifically for school administrators, Mazyck said.

If a sick student arrives at the nurse’s office, he or she will do what he always does. The nurse will check the students’ symptoms before referring them to their primary care provider, Mazyck said.

“They will also notice if those symptoms coincide with those related to COVID-19 exposure,” he said. That information is likely to be shared with the local health department, he added.

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School closures are possible …

Some schools may be forced to implement social distancing in an effort to prevent an outbreak. In the classroom, that could mean dividing the students. A 2017 CDC document suggested dividing classes into smaller groups and reorganizing desks so students were at least one meter from each other. But social distancing could also mean isolating a sick student or closing a school altogether.

“The key here is to isolate people who are infected to protect others from getting it,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the Association of School Superintendents.

“And that’s where schools have a problem,” he added. “Classrooms are basically virus incubators.”

These decisions would be made with the help of health authorities, he said, that they have the knowledge and experience that district superintendents will rely on, particularly when a case is identified in a school.

“Those are difficult decisions that must be made in conjunction with health organizations,” Domenech said.

School closures are usually decided based on a percentage of absenteeism between staff and students, Mazyck said. But officials will take into account a variety of factors before closing a school.

“I would observe the severity of the disease,” he said. “That is the number of sick people, what is happening in that community where the schools are located and in the school itself.”

“And then decisions are made based on the impact of the disease on school staff and students who we believe are vulnerable or at greater risk of COVID-19,” he said.

… but it is also possible to do online classes

The possibility of closures also raises questions about how schools can continue to teach students without prolonged interruption.

Domenech said one of the benefits not available at the time of the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic is current technology. He said many school districts have laptops for students to take home, which makes it easier for them to continue their online learning.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools announced earlier this week that they have up to 200,000 electronic devices that they can distribute to students in case of school closures.

“If we have to close a school for some reason, and that is a measure of last resort, or isolate the classrooms of the students where they would have to stay at home, we can train those students and families with digital content devices then their education continues from a distance, ”said Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools, Alberto Carvalho.

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Of course, not all neighborhoods and school districts have the resources Miami-Dade has, and students may not have reliable access to the Internet or a computer to learn online.

In many of those cases, Domenech said, schools will prepare instructional packages – “The old paper and pencil, if you can imagine,” he said, so that the students take home.

There will be challenges

Domenech said closures could be difficult for parents, that they would probably have to stay at home with the students or that someone else would stay at home, because sending them to daycare would frustrate the purpose of school closure.

Students in low-income areas can also rely on school meal programs for meals. But emergency response plans for school districts are likely to include an alternative, such as connecting with community groups that can help, Mazyck said.

“I saw that happened during the epidemic and pandemic of H1N1,” said Mazyck. “Because these school administrators know their populations, they took action for children who would lack food because schools had to close for health reasons.”

It is likely that districts take these challenges into account, but ultimately, containing the coronavirus will win.

“Some of these decisions will be difficult and hard,” Domenech said. “But, again, if we are talking about an epidemic and it contains the spread of an epidemic, those are the things that are going to have to happen.”

Jacqueline Howard and Jamie Gumbrecht of CNN contributed to this report.


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