What Would a Coronavirus Outbreak in the U.S. Mean for Schools?

Schools in the United States prepare for all manner of disasters and threats, whether hurricanes, mass shooters, tornadoes, influenza or head lice.

But this week, a stark new order came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Get ready for the coronavirus.

Around the nation, school officials and parents were flummoxed by the sudden warning that if a coronavirus epidemic hit the United States, school buildings could be shut down for long periods of time, leaving children sequestered at home.

In alerting that the coronavirus will almost certainly spread in the United States, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said she had contacted her own local school superintendent this week and asked if the district was prepared. She advised parents to do the same. And she suggested that a temporary system of “internet-based teleschooling” could replace traditional schools.

It was not clear how such a system would work.

The obstacles to teaching remotely were evident: American children have uneven access to home computers and broadband internet. Schools have limited expertise in providing instruction online on a large scale. And parents would be forced to juggle their own work responsibilities with what could amount to “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling,” said Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America, a think tank.

Across the country, as federal authorities announced that 60 people in the United States had been infected with the virus, mainly from travel abroad, families were grappling with the new alarm raised over the virus and how a possible outbreak could play out in their own communities.

In Denver, Meg Conley’s 11-year-old daughter, Margaret, interrupted breakfast on Wednesday morning with a worried question. She told her mother that her elementary school classmates were gripped by fears about the coronavirus, and she asked when it was coming and how many people it would kill.

“I had no idea,” Ms. Conley, 35, a freelance writer, said of the children’s anxieties. “Apparently it’s all the kids are talking about on the playground.”

Schools are hastily making their own plans, or updating those drafted during previous scares over viruses like H1N1 and Ebola. The Washington State health department held a webinar for about 250 school superintendents on Tuesday to discuss coronavirus preparations, including plans to close schools and allow students to continue to do schoolwork at home.

Dennis Kosuth, a nurse for Chicago Public Schools, said his district’s ability to handle an outbreak could be compromised by circumstances like families who could not afford child care costs to keep sick children at home. Nursing shortages are a concern, too, he said. Mr. Kosuth said he was responsible for nursing care at four schools.

  • Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all nonessential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world was not ready for a major outbreak.

Some Chicago schools also lack rooms dedicated to health needs, Mr. Kosuth said. In one school where many students and staff members became ill with an ordinary infection last semester, “Patient Zero was sitting in the main office coughing and sneezing all over the place” as the sick child waited to be picked up, he said.

On a more positive note, Mr. Kosuth said that evidence from China suggested that children were more resilient to the coronavirus than adults were.

In Miami-Dade County, Fla., Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of one of the nation’s largest school districts, said his system’s preparation for hurricanes put it at an advantage in preparing for the coronavirus. The district has provided laptops, tablets and smartphones for some students to take home, as well as internet connectivity for some low-income students. Teachers would be asked to assign work remotely and could even teach some high school courses live online.

“I was a bit surprised that it took this long to offer national guidance specifically to school districts,” Mr. Carvalho said of the C.D.C. statement this week.

Many districts have already sent home letters about the coronavirus, asking parents to keep sick children away from school and to remember basic prevention measures such as hand washing, cough covering and vaccination against the flu. They have highlighted C.D.C. advice issued early this month, calling for all travelers returning from China to “self-quarantine” for 14 days.

School officials have often tried to ratchet down panic among parents, reminding families that face masks are not broadly recommended and that the overall risk of infection is low.

But few districts have publicly addressed what would happen to classes in the case of widespread infection and school closings like those that have taken place in China, Italy and Bahrain.

[Read: Japan shocks parents by moving to close all schools in response to coronavirus.]

The vast majority of districts have access to broadband internet, but they do not necessarily have expertise in how to effectively organize and teach classes online when schools are shuttered. Further complicating matters, not all families have home computers and high-speed internet. While 90 percent of households with children under 18 had broadband access in 2016, according to federal data, gaps remained along the lines of income, race and education level.

Less affluent families were more likely to depend on smartphones but to lack computers or tablets, which are often needed to fully participate in online learning.

While school districts may not be ready for widespread remote learning, many of the larger districts have had plans for the possibility of pandemics for years, according to Chris Dorn, a school safety consultant with the nonprofit Safe Havens International.

Districts without such plans will need to work with local health agencies to come up with protocols, he said. Among the questions to tackle: Should students at risk for coronavirus who show symptoms at school be transported immediately to hospitals or should they be kept on school grounds until a parent or caretaker can pick them up?

In the San José Unified School District in California, Melinda Landau, who manages school nursing, said the district’s response to flu season would also help in the case of a coronavirus outbreak.

It has ordered additional thermometers and hand-washing lesson kits, which allow nurses to sprinkle powder that glows when exposed to ultraviolet light, demonstrating how thoroughly students have washed their hands and how important simple personal-hygiene measures can be.

The district also asks parents who call their children in sick to describe symptoms. Schools with clusters of sick students are cleaned more deeply with disinfecting products.

There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the district, Ms. Landau said. Two students returned from trips to China in late January. Their parents voluntarily kept them home from school for a time to monitor their health.

Going forward, the district is waiting to see how the coronavirus progresses, Ms. Landau said.

She added, “We don’t quite know where to move yet.”

Closing schools may not be the best option, especially since children appear to be at lower risk of infection, said Amy Acton, the director of Ohio’s health department. Beyond contingency plans for closing, she said, schools need to consider lining up substitute teachers and planning for absences of other staff members, like cafeteria workers. And Dr. Acton said schools can also play another, more traditional, role: science and health education.

“Schools can be telling families what they can be doing to stay healthy, and we can teach about viruses, and what is a zoonotic disease? Why is it important to get a flu vaccine?” Dr. Acton said. “This is a teachable moment.”

Jack Healy, Amy Harmon and Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting.

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