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.
So far, the response from schools and health officials has varied depending on whether a locality has confirmed cases – and experts' views on how much action is appropriate is rapidly evolving. But the uncertainty of how far the virus will spread has put school leaders in a difficult spot of projecting a sense of calm while also acting with an abundance of caution for student safety.
"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."
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.
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.
Doctor's advice:The best preventative steps to contain the coronavirus
As of Monday, some school districts in Washington closed because of concerns over the virus. The Colville School District north of Spokane closed Monday until further notice – or until after test results come back of a suspected local infection.
A few schools in northern Idaho, on the border of Washington, also shut down Monday for cleaning, even though Idaho currently has no confirmed cases of the virus. Students from these schools attended a jazz festival with musicians from a high school in Washington where a student has tested positive for the virus. However, the student with the virus wasn't at the festival.
Some schools closed even though health officials said it wasn't necessary. Bothell High School, located north of Seattle, shut down schools for cleaning for two days last week because a family member of an employee was quarantined for potentially having the virus. That person ultimately tested negative.
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 from 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.
Some ed tech firms that specialize in K-12 online learning are already touting their services to schools. Study.com, which offers courses used by home-schooled students, has advertised its platform as an option.
Another company, Outschool, facilitates online group classes for students ages 3 to 18 over the live video conferencing platform Zoom. Its leaders have offered to provide free teacher training and webinars to schools interested in using video-conferencing as a way to hold classes in the event of long-term closures.
One small, private school in the San Francisco Bay Area is preparing to take Outschool up on its offer. David O'Connell, head of The Saklan School, which enrolls about 120 students, said he learned about Outschool from a parent. After talking with the company, he asked teachers last week if they'd be open to doing some training on it, in the event the school has to shut down because of the virus.
"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."
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.