How Schools and Parents Should Prepare for the Coronavirus in the U.S.

Note: This article published on March 3, 2020. The consequences of the pandemic have changed dramatically since the publication date as the situation and impact on schools and students continues to evolve daily.

The new coronavirus began as a mysterious illness in China, but it has now spread to every continent, except Antarctica, and is responsible for more than 3,000 deaths. According to the New York Times, to date, thirteen states in the U.S. have reported cases of the disease.

Although most cases of the new coronavirus have been mild, and there are still far fewer cases in the U.S. than in China or South Korea, parents should stay alert to all the implications of this fast-growing virus.

Coronavirus Background and Symptoms

The new virus, called SARS-CoV-2, which is the shortened version of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” causes an outbreak of the disease that the World Health Organization has named “coronavirus disease 2019”or COVID19. It originated in Wuhan City, China.

Symptoms of the COVID19 disease mainly affect the lower respiratory tract and have ranged from mild to severe among the reported cases. Much like the flu, symptoms may begin with a fever and cough, then progress to shortness of breath, like pneumonia. Patients may also experience body aches, and some have had nausea with vomiting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the symptoms may appear between 2 and 14 days after a person is exposed.

CDC Coronavirus Warning

On Tuesday, February 26, the CDC released an alarming warning predicting the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a CDC telebriefing update. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

Messonnier also noted that, “At this time, there’s no vaccine to protect against this new virus and no medications approved to treat it.” Instead, she stressed the importance of keeping those who are sick away from the healthy population.

Since this briefing, what the CDC refers to as “community spread,” in which a patient contracts the virus without ”relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient,” has been reported in the United States. “That suggests that the virus is out there in the community,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, an infectious disease specialist at UC Davis Medical Center told CNN, “and that means pretty much that everybody’s at risk,” he said.

The Impact on Schools

Both Japan and Hong Kong have made the rare decision to close schools and teach online to contain the new virus. “This is to prioritize the health and safety of the children,” Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on February 27, “and take precautions to avoid the risk of possible large-scale infections for many children and teachers who gather and spend hours together every day.”

Sixteen schools in the state of Washington made the decision to close temporarily in response to the coronavirus after 14 cases and six deaths were reported in the state. Though none of those cases were linked to schools or involved children, officials made the decision to close out of “an abundance of caution,” as the Puyallup School District put it in a tweet. “Even a low risk is too much,” Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District in Washington State told The Seattle Times.

U.S. schools in states that have not reported any cases of the virus are also preparing for an outbreak. Several schools have canceled field trips outside of the U.S. as well as Chinese exchange programs. Many parents have received letters from school officials with updates on their plans and reminders to observe the same precautions advised for flu season — such as frequent hand washing and keeping kids home if they show any signs of illness.

Officials have advised school cleaning crews to carefully wipe down doorknobs, desks, and other surfaces that students use throughout the day. Some schools are making hand sanitizers available in the building and on buses.

Schools Prepare for Long-Term Closure

To accommodate the school closures in China, officials have created a national online learning platform and even began broadcasting classes on TV. Teachers and students in the country are becoming familiar with this alternative method of home learning via public school. “Although my school tried online teaching a few years ago, we haven’t done it on this scale before,” high school teacher Zheng Jinhong told South China Morning Post. “All of our teachers and students are now involved.”

While not all students in China are enjoying the change in schooling, some are finding they prefer learning from home with school online. Xu Yuting, a high school student studying in China, gets an extra two hours of sleep now that she doesn’t have to commute to school. “I like online teaching because I have more freedom at home,” Xu told the Post.

The CDC briefing included mention of the possibility of school closures as part of plans for non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). “For schools, options include dividing students into smaller groups, or in a severe pandemic, closing schools and using internet-based tele-schooling to continue education,” Messonnier noted.

Fortunately, many schools have some technology in place and some schools even issue laptops to students. “If it’s serious enough to close schools, we have something today we didn’t have back then: We have the technology that does allow students to be able to stay home and do work online,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Domenech recommends that schools also set up a procedure to test students for the virus.

How Parents Can Protect Kids from the Coronavirus

Reminding kids to wash their hands frequently, avoiding contact with others who are sick, and keeping kids home when feeling ill are the most important steps to ensuring kids stay healthy.

Messonnier also suggests that parents ensure that their kids’ schools are well prepared. “You should ask your children’s school about their plans for school dismissals or school closures,” she said in the CDC briefing. “Ask if there are plans for tele-school.  I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions,” she added. Parents might also look into virtual schools in case alternative school offerings become necessary, and think about how they would accommodate having school-aged children at home during the day. Check if teleworking is an option. For more information on how online schooling might work as a solution to the coronavirus outbreak, visit the FAQ section of the K12 website.

Rumors circulate quickly, and the news has been full of dire warnings about the new virus, so parents should also speak to their children and reassure them that their chances of getting COVID19 are still quite rare and most cases are mild. But answer any questions they have, and don’t dismiss their fears. Simply being prepared and educated about it can help alleviate anxiety.

Additional Resources:

U.S. Department of Education: COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) Information and Resources for Schools and School Personnel

CDC: Interim Guidance for Administrators of US Childcare Programs and K-12 Schools to Plan, Prepare, and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Coronavirus School Solutions FAQ

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