Each year, schools fight to prevent the spread of all sorts of germs and illnesses. This year, there’s another virus to be concerned about—novel coronavirus (COVID-19). As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads and cases are identified in the United States, schools should consider precautions to keep their students and staff healthy.
Business as Usual
In some ways, schools are more than prepared to handle concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. School administration should fight the spread of COVID-19 in the same way it fights the spread of the common cold or flu every year:
- Follow the school’s standard cleaning and sanitizing procedures, paying special attention to commonly touched surfaces, such as desks, doorknobs, computer keyboards, and faucet handles.
- Encourage students and staff to stay home when they are feeling ill and to remain at home until they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours.
- Remind students and staff to wash their hands regularly, and make sure soap, hand sanitizer, and paper towel dispensers remain well-stocked.
- If a sick student is identified, follow standard procedures for isolating that student in an area where he or she will have limited contact with other students and staff until the student can go home.
At this time, the need for extra precautions is limited because the threat of COVID-19 spreading in Iowa schools is low. However, the spread of COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and schools should continue to follow all advice provided by their local department of public health as conditions change. Things schools can consider doing now include:
- Provide disposable disinfectant wipes when possible for students and staff to regularly wipe down commonly used areas, such as desks and computer keyboards
- Monitor absenteeism and report anything greater than 10% to the local department of public health
- Make it easier for students and staff to stay home when sick. Do not require doctor’s notes and discontinue perfect attendance programs.
- Review plans for your response if COVID-19 spreads to your community
As cases of the virus are confirmed in the U.S., schools should monitor guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and state and local departments of public health regarding necessary precautions. Schools can gather initial guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH).
Students Returning from Travel Abroad
If you have a student who has recently traveled abroad to an area affected by COVID-19, the student may be required to undergo symptom monitoring and isolation as directed by state and local public health officials.
Students who have recently traveled abroad but appear healthy should not be isolated.
If a student exhibits symptoms of fever or respiratory infection, the student should seek medical attention. School nurses should confirm whether the student has recently traveled abroad or if the student has been in contact with someone who has. Schools can report suspected cases of COVID-19 by contacting their local department of public health.
The CDC currently advises schools to postpone or cancel all travel abroad. For school trips planned within the U.S., schools should monitor reports regarding the spread of the virus and consider canceling or postponing tips to states with reported cases . If a school has questions regarding the risk of travel to a specific location, the school should contact its local health department for additional information.
If you choose not to postpone or cancel a school trip, students and parents should be made aware of the risks, and be informed that the school assumes no liability related to the student’s voluntary participation in the trip. You may want to consider having parents and students sign a waiver releasing the school from any liability and acknowledging the parent and student’s assumption of the risks associated with international travel.
How to Respond if COVID-19 Spreads to Your Community
Schools should consult their local health departments before making decisions to cancel large events or dismiss school. If school is dismissed, consider postponing or canceling other extracurricular activities and encourage students not to gather together in places outside of school. Consider options that would allow the school to continue to provide services to students in need, such as grab-and-go bagged lunches. Healthy faculty may continue to work, but it is recommended that they remain at least six feet apart.
Many schools have considered utilizing remote learning options in the event of school closure. Although these options can help minimize disruption to the academic year, remote learning may not be a realistic option for every school. When establishing and implementing remote learning options it is important to ensure that the plan provides equal education options to the entire student body. Remote learning plans must provide accommodations for students who do not have access to a computer or reliable internet access at home as well as those with disabilities who may have difficulty with remote learning platforms. Rather than relying on remote learning options, it may be more appropriate for schools to utilize make-up days and apply for any available waivers to the required number of school days for this academic year.
The Big Picture
For now, schools should simply follow their standard procedures for ensuring they provide a safe and healthy environment for students and staff. Schools should consider canceling or postponing all trips abroad. When planning trips within the United States, schools should monitor the spread of COVID-19, cancel or postpone any trips to high-risk areas or reschedule to safer destinations, and consider obtaining trip waivers from students. If COVID-19 spreads to your community, work with the local health department to plan a response and determine if, and when, classes and events should be canceled. Ensure that you have a plan in place to decrease the interruption that may be caused by school cancellation, both by provided remote learning options and continuing school services when possible.
Iowa schools with questions about COVID-19 should contact IDPH’s Center for Acute Disease Epidemiology at (800) 362-2736.
A similar “Coronavirus Concerns for Schools” blog post was published on February 24. This post reflects the most recent information as of March 11, 2020.
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