Canceled foreign trips and ‘palpable’ anxiety: Schools prepare for the coronavirus

Medical staff with protective clothing are seen inside a ward specialised in receiving any person who may have been infected with coronavirus, at the Rajiv Ghandhi Government General hospital in Chennai, India, January 29, 2020. REUTERS/P. Ravikumar/File photo

Canceled international trips. Extra hand-washing and squirts of disinfectant between classes. Essay-length emails sent to parents, meant to reassure.

“A new disease is circulating,” Northern Virginia school officials wrote of the novel coronavirus spreading around the world in a recent message to Fairfax County parents and staff. “It’s natural for people to be concerned.”

Hastened preparations are taking place in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the nation as Americans watch for the arrival of the coronavirus. The flulike illness, which originated in China, had infected more than 80,000 and killed roughly 3,000 worldwide as of Wednesday.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged the public this week to prepare for the virus’ “inevitable” spread inside the United States – including in schools.

Parents should “ask their schools about plans for dismissal” and for online classes, said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions.”

Messonnier’s comments spurred anxiety in Washington-area schools. Fairfax County school officials opened their inboxes Wednesday to find concerned messages from parents, according to spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell.

The school system – with 188,000 students, one of the largest in the nation – replied in website updates and emails with the same instructions it has offered since the coronavirus surfaced.

“Our key messages remain: wash your hands frequently and stay home when ill to prevent contagion,” Caldwell said.

On the same day of the federal warnings, Fairfax County schools canceled international field trips and short-term visits to countries where residents have fallen ill from the coronavirus. As of Wednesday, school officials had suspended seven exchange programs arranged with countries including South Korea, Japan and Italy, Caldwell said.

The school system is also reviewing “emergency preparedness and response plans,” Caldwell said – including the possibility of online classes. Several other school systems in the Washington region said they are doing the same.

Class closures are unlikely in the near future, experts said, because relatively few coronavirus cases have been diagnosed in the United States. There were 60 people with the virus in the United States as of Wednesday evening, and 42 of them had been aboard a cruise ship. No cases have been confirmed in the District of Columbia, Maryland or Virginia, authorities said this week.

School officials developed contingency plans for remote learning after weathering pandemics including SARS and the H1N1 swine flu, said Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“It could be webcam classes, it could be work students are submitting online, it could even be chat rooms that replicate a class,” Farrace said. “If there is any silver lining to coronavirus, it’s that maybe it will prompt even more schools to consider this stuff.”

As schools consider virtual education, they should help parents plan for time stuck at home, said Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University assistant professor who studies epidemics. For example, he said, administrators should tell mothers and fathers to fill all medical prescriptions as soon as possible.

“No one tends to think of something like prescriptions,” Scarpino said.

Socioeconomic status could dramatically alter how students experience the virus, said Harvard global health lecturer Jesse Bump.

Low-income families will be less able to adjust if schools suddenly close, ending services such as free or reduced-price meals, Bump said – and, if classes go online, households without WiFi will be at a severe disadvantage.

Authorities must be ready to step in if schools shutter, Bump said, because the closures will deprive communities of a crucial resource – at the very moment it’s most needed.

“Schools are a focal point,” he said. “They’re a natural way to disseminate information.”

Administrators in Maryland’s largest school district experienced that in recent weeks. Hundreds of parents have phoned or emailed to share worries or ask questions about the virus, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Derek Turner said.

Some parents wanted to know whether officials would quarantine students whose families recently visited Asia. Another parent wondered whether a scheduled spring trip to South Korea could lead to quarantine.

Still another inquired whether school officials are spraying classroom surfaces with disinfectant or scrubbing down laptops.

“We don’t have the capacity to wipe down everything that everyone touches every day,” Turner said.

Parental anxiety in Montgomery County, which enrolls more than 165,000 students, is “palpable,” Turner said. The school is working to forestall panic by sending families infection statistics and guidance provided by the CDC – a tactic adopted by school systems throughout Maryland and Virginia and in the District.

A Feb. 13 email to parents in Loudoun County Public Schools, a Northern Virginia district with roughly 84,000 students, provided links to four government websites. It also repeated the email and phone number for the Loudoun County Health Department three times.

“Keeping parents informed,” Loudoun schools spokesman Rob Doolittle said, “is an obligation we take very seriously.”

None of the emails, though, prepared Rein Alyn for what happened to her daughter this month.

One day last week, the Loudoun County third-grader – who is of Filipino and European descent – arrived home and told her mother the bus ride to school had been “really frustrating.” A boy she knew, the 8-year-old said, called her “an Asian immigrant,” even though she was born in the United States.

That meant she “had the coronavirus,” the boy said. It meant she must be shunned.

It was the first time the child had encountered this kind of racism, her mother said.

Bump said that throughout U.S. history, people have manipulated fears of infectious disease to discriminate against minority groups.

“This is part of a long and ugly tradition,” Bump said.

Rein, who emigrated from the Philippines at age 3 and served in the U.S. military, hopes the next email from Loudoun County will condemn coronavirus-related bullying. Doolittle said that the school system takes all reports of bullying “very seriously,” but that officials “are not aware” of virus-driven harassment “occurring with any frequency.”

Rein, 37, also hopes the incident did not diminish her daughter’s patriotism, highly valued in their military family. (Her husband served, too.) That evening, Rein explained to her daughter that some Americans may treat her differently because “her mom is from another country” – but that the United States is worth loving anyway.

That seemed to resonate. Rein warned her daughter she might hear more comments, should the coronavirus become widespread. To this, the girl made no reply.

Instead, Rein said, her daughter just shook her head.

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