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COVID-19: How Schools Are Handling the Coronavirus & How You Can Protect Yourself

by David Engle | Mar 05, 2020 | 5 min read

It was only a matter of time, but COVID-19, more commonly known as the coronavirus, has found its way into the United States. Not since the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016 and the H1N1 swine flu has the world been put on such high alert concerning a potential pandemic. As of today, there have been 137 cases of coronavirus confirmed in the U.S., with nine deaths–all in the state of Washington. In all, 14 states have confirmed at least one case of the virus. While the fatality rate is still low at approximately 3%, it’s much higher than the common flu (0.1%), which claims thousands of lives every year.

Unfortunately, these numbers are projected to grow worse before they get better as testing, diagnosis, and containment continue to be major challenges. In the meantime, some states are taking precautionary measures by closing businesses and schools in an effort to contain the virus and limit its reach. Thus far, some schools in Washington, Oregon, Rhode Island, and New York have been closed, with more likely in the coming days.

But school closures can’t be coordinated at the drop of a hat. In fact, they can cause logistical (and even legal) nightmares for administrators, faculty, students, and parents. According to a research paper prepared for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2008, most states have multiple legal avenues to authorize the closing of schools either through state or local education and public health authorities, and depending on whether a state of emergency had been declared. However, the report also states that, “Our survey and characterization suggest that specific legal authority at the state level to close schools is ambiguous.” That opens the door to debates on whether schools should remain open during potential epidemics and pandemics.

In fact, this occurred as recently as the end of February, when the Seattle-area Northshore School District, against recommendations from local health officials, closed Bothell High School for two days because a staff member’s relative tested positive for COVID-19. Health officials did not see an inherent risk in keeping the school open; the school district disagreed.

There’s no set timetable as far as how long school closures should last; reopening schools too quickly essentially renders the short closure meaningless as far as its ability to help slow the potential spread of the virus. Closing them for long periods of time has tremendous financial and logistical implications. So, what’s the solution? The CDC suggests school districts stay in contact with local and state health officials to determine the best outcome. They also recommend the following:

  • Review, update, and implement emergency operations plans. This includes posting and distributing health best practice materials (such as signs, posters, and other messaging).
  • Reinforce common-sense preventive measures like the ones outlined below.
  • Defer to health department protocols. The CDC says “schools are not expected to make decisions about dismissal or canceling events on their own,” nor should they screen staff or students for COVID-19, because these fall under the purview of state and local health departments.
  • Develop a plan for possible school closures. This should be done in conjunction with the health department as they’ll have recommendations as to when school should be closed as well as the duration of the closure.
  • Monitor absenteeism. If there appears to be an abnormal spike in absences across the school within a short period of time, the health department should be contacted. Any “perfect attendance” awards or programs should be immediately suspended, as this incentivizes children to come to school even if they’re ill.
  • Routine cleaning and disinfecting. School staff should ensure that all commonly touched surfaces are regularly cleaned and sanitized.
  • Communication. During uncertain times such as these, people want reassurance…or at the very least constant communication. Parents, students, and staff have the right to know what’s happening and what decisions are being made. Failing to do so leads to unnecessary panic, rumors, and misinformation–the last thing any community needs during an already stressful situation.
  • Minimize large gatherings. This includes large group lunches in the cafeteria (the CDC recommends distributing grab-and-go bagged lunches or even meal delivery options), assemblies, meetings, and even some extracurricular activities. The CDC also advises spacing students’ desks at least three feet apart in order to minimize the risk of contagion.

Not exclusive to schools, the CDC has shared important information on how schools can take measures and how people can help protect themselves from potentially contracting COVID-19. Some of these measures include:

  • Stay home when you’re sick. Though the chances are slim you have the coronavirus, if you’re ill, keep the germs at home and don’t provide the opportunity for them to spread in a public environment like work, school, or public transportation.
  • Wash your hands…correctly. This involves more than a cursory three-second rinse under cool tap water, which we’ve all been guilty of from time to time. The proper way is to:
    • Wet the hands with cool or warm water.
    • Dispense soap into your hands and work into a lather, making sure to wash the palm, the back of the hand, in between fingers, and underneath fingernails.
    • Scrub with soap for at least 20 seconds.
    • Rinse your hands well.
    • Dry your hands with a clean towel, or air dry them.
  • If washing hands isn’t feasible, use an alcohol-based (at least 60%) hand sanitizer. While hand sanitizers don’t eliminate all types of germs, they are effective in destroying most, and it’s a good backup in case you’re not able to wash with soap. Rub the gel all over your hands and fingers for 20 seconds or so, until your hands are dry.
  • Avoid getting near people who are sick. It’s advised to stay at least three feet away if possible.
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or the crook of your elbow when sneezing or coughing. Then dispose of the tissue and wash your hands if possible.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces frequently, whether you’re at home or work. These include door knobs and handles, light switches, toilet handles, countertops, and other commonly touched surfaces or items.
  • Use disposable disinfectant wipes to clean computer equipment or other items that might be shared.

One thing NOT to do when trying to steer clear of COVID-19? Do not wear a surgical face mask, for multiple reasons. One, a mask will not protect you from inhaling small airborne particles that spread the infection. Nor does it form a tight seal around your face. Bottom line: surgical masks are not effective against respiratory illnesses. Two, because people are either unaware or unconcerned about the fact that surgical masks will not prevent you from contracting the coronavirus (or other airborne illnesses), masks are now in short supply, causing major problems for medical workers and caregivers who need the masks to avoid illness. The only times you should wear a surgical mask are if you’re caring for someone who already has COVID-19 symptoms and if you’re showing symptoms yourself. If wearing a mask is necessary in those situations, the World Health Organization (WHO) offers some helpful tips on how and when to use masks.

While it’s important to be cautious and take preventive measures to keep yourself as healthy as possible, you also need to be able to live your life without fear. As was the case with Ebola five years ago and SARS more than 15 years ago, scientists will find a way to contain, if not cure, COVID-19. In the meantime, follow the CDC’s guidelines and precautions and use common sense to avoid illness.

In the event of a lengthy school closure, an accredited homeschool program like Bridgeway Academy can help keep your child’s education on track. Bridgeway offers plenty of options to help bridge the gap in schooling, so students don’t fall behind. Whether it’s individual live classes, self-paced online courses, or textbook learning, an accredited homeschool academy like Bridgeway can be of great assistance and help keep your student on track even during difficult times.

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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