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What schools and teachers should be doing now about coronavirus, according to the experts

Bothell High School in suburban Seattle was closed last week after a relative of one of the staff members was placed in quarantine after showing symptoms associated with the coronavirus. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

What should schools, teachers and everyone else on a campus be doing as the new coronavirus continues spreading around the globe, including in the United States?

Most patients confirmed to have covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, have had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Some patients have experienced pneumonia in both lungs, and the global death count as of Monday was more than 3,000, with six deaths in Washington state. A few schools there closed as a precaution, and experts say more school closings are possible if the disease continues to spread throughout the United States.

There is no antiviral treatment specifically for the disease, but experts say there are precautionary steps everyone can and should be taking to avoid coming down with covid-19.

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Here’s what experts say schools and teachers should be doing to prepare for the spread of the coronavirus. The following advice comes directly from leading health and education agencies:


Guidance for schools that do not have covid-19 identified in their community

To prepare for possible community transmission of covid-19, the most important thing for schools to do now is plan and prepare. As the global outbreak evolves, schools should prepare for the possibility of community-level outbreaks. Schools want to be ready if covid-19 does appear in their communities.

Child-care and K-12 school administrators nationwide can take steps to help stop or slow the spread of respiratory infectious diseases, including covid-19:

  • Review, update, and implement emergency operations plans (EOPs). This should be done in collaboration with local health departments and other relevant partners. Focus on the components, or annexes, of the plans that address infectious disease outbreaks.
  • Ensure the plan includes strategies to reduce the spread of a wide variety of infectious diseases (e.g. seasonal influenza). Effective strategies build on everyday school policies and practices.
  • Ensure the plan emphasizes common-sense preventive actions for students and staff. For example, emphasize actions such as staying home when sick; appropriately covering coughs and sneezes; cleaning frequently touched surfaces; and washing hands often.

The CDC has workplace resources such as posters with messages for staff about staying home when sick and how to avoid spreading germs at work.

Other health and education professional organizations may also have helpful resources your school can use or share. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics provides information on germ prevention strategies and reducing the spread of illness in child-care settings.

  • Ensure handwashing strategies include washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available.

The CDC offers several free handwashing resources that include health promotion materials, information on proper handwashing technique and tips for families to help children develop good handwashing habits.

Reference key resources while reviewing, updating and implementing the EOP:

  • Multiple federal agencies have developed resources on school planning principles and a six-step process for creating plans to build and continually foster safe and healthy school communities before, during, and after possible emergencies. Key resources include guidance on developing high-quality school emergency operations plans and a companion guide on the role of school districts in developing high-quality school emergency operations plans.
  • The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance (TA) Center’s website contains free resources, training and technical assistance to schools and their community partners, including many tools and resources on emergency planning and response to infectious disease outbreaks.
  • Develop information-sharing systems with partners.
  • Information-sharing systems can be used for day-to-day reporting (on information such as changes in absenteeism) and disease surveillance efforts to detect and respond to an outbreak.
  • Local health officials should be a key partner in information sharing.

Monitor and plan for absenteeism.

  • Review the usual absenteeism patterns at your school among students and staff.
  • Alert local health officials about large increases in student and staff absenteeism, particularly if absences appear due to respiratory illnesses (like the common cold or the flu, which have symptoms similar to those of covid-19).
  • Review attendance and sick leave policies. Encourage students and staff to stay home when sick. Use flexibility when possible to allow staff to stay home to care for sick family members.
  • Discourage the use of perfect attendance awards and incentives.
  • Identify critical job functions and positions, and plan for alternative coverage by cross-training staff.
  • Determine what level of absenteeism will disrupt continuity of teaching and learning.

Establish procedures for students and staff who are sick at school.

  • Establish procedures to ensure students and staff who become sick at school or arrive at school sick are sent home as soon as possible.
  • Keep sick students and staff separate from well students and staff until they can leave.
  • Remember that schools are not expected to screen students or staff to identify cases of covid-19. The majority of respiratory illnesses are not covid-19. If a community (or more specifically, a school) has cases of covid-19, local health officials will help identify those individuals and will follow up on next steps.
  • Share resources with the school community to help families understand when to keep children home. This guidance, not specific to covid-19, from the American Academy of Pediatrics can be helpful for families.

Perform routine environmental cleaning.

  • Routinely clean frequently touched surfaces (e.g. doorknobs, light switches, countertops) with the cleaners typically used. Use all cleaning products according to the directions on the label.
  • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (e.g. keyboards, desks, remote controls) can be wiped down by students and staff before each use.

Create communications plans for use with the school community.

  • Include strategies for sharing information with staff, students and their families.
  • Include information about steps being taken by the school or child-care facility to prepare, and how additional information will be shared.

Review the CDC’s guidance for businesses and employers.

  • Review this CDC guidance to identify any additional strategies the school can use, given its role as an employer.

Child-care and K-12 administrators can also support their school community by sharing resources with students (if resources are age-appropriate), their families and staff. Coordinate with local health officials to determine what type of information might be best to share with the school community. Consider sharing the following fact sheets and information sources:

  • Information about covid-19 available through state and local health departments
  • General CDC fact sheets to help staff and students’ families understand covid-19 and the steps they can take to protect themselves:

What you need to know about coronavirus disease 2019 (covid-19)

What to do if you are sick with coronavirus disease 2019 (covid-19)

Stop the spread of germs — help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses like covid-19

  • CDC information on covid-19 and children
  • CDC information for staff, students and their families who have recently returned to the United States from areas where the CDC has identified community spread of the coronavirus. A list of countries where community spread of covid-19 is occurring can be found on the CDC’s website: Coronavirus Disease 2019 Information for Travel

For questions about students who plan to travel, or have recently traveled, to areas with community spread of covid-19, refer to the CDC’s FAQ for travelers. Schools can also consult with state and local health officials. Schools may need to postpone or cancel trips that could expose students and staff to potential community spread of covid-19. Students returning from travel to areas with community spread of covid-19 must follow guidance they have received from health officials. Covid-19 information for travel is updated regularly on the CDC website.

Guidance for schools with identified cases of covid-19 in their community

If local health officials report there are cases of covid-19 in the community, schools may need to take additional steps in response to prevent spread in the school. The first step for schools in this situation is to talk with local health officials. The guidance provided here is based on current knowledge of covid-19. As additional information becomes available about the virus, how it spreads and how severe it is, this guidance may be updated. Administrators are encouraged to work closely with local health officials to determine a course of action for their child-care programs or schools.

Determine if, when, and for how long child-care programs or schools may need to be dismissed.

Temporarily dismissing child-care programs and K-12 schools is a strategy to stop or slow the further spread of covid-19 in communities. During school dismissals, child-care programs and schools may stay open for staff members (unless ill) while students stay home. Keeping facilities open a) allows teachers to develop and deliver lessons and materials remotely, thus maintaining continuity of teaching and learning; and b) allows other staff members to continue to provide services and help with additional response efforts.

Child-care and school administrators should work in close collaboration and coordination with local health officials to make dismissal and large event cancellation decisions. Schools are not expected to make decisions about dismissal or canceling events on their own. Schools can seek specific guidance from local health officials to determine if, when and for how long to take these steps. Large event cancellations or school dismissals may be recommended for 14 days, or possibly longer if advised by local health officials. The nature of these actions (e.g. geographic scope, duration) may change as the local outbreak situation evolves.

If an ill student or staff member attended school before being confirmed as a covid-19 case:

  • Local health officials may recommend temporary school dismissals if a student or staff member attended school before being confirmed as a covid-19 case. Local health officials’ recommendations for the scope (e.g. a single school, a full district) and duration of school dismissals will be made on a case-by-case basis based on the most up-to-date information about covid-19 and the specific cases in the impacted community.
  • Schools should work with the local health department and other relevant leadership to communicate the possible covid-19 exposure. This communication to the school community should align with the communication plan in the school’s emergency operations plan. In such a circumstance, it is critical to maintain confidentiality of the student or staff member as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
  • If a student or staff member has been identified with covid-19, school and program administrators should seek guidance from local health officials to determine when students and staff should return to schools and what additional steps are needed for the school community. In addition, students and staff who are well but are taking care of or share a home with someone with a case of covid-19 should follow instructions from local health officials to determine when to return to school.

If schools are dismissed, schools can consider the following steps:

  • Temporarily cancel extracurricular group activities and large events. Cancel or postpone events such as after-school assemblies and pep rallies, field trips and sporting events.
  • Discourage students and staff from gathering or socializing anywhere. Discourage gatherings at places such as a friend’s house, a favorite restaurant or the local shopping mall.
  • Ensure continuity of education. Review continuity plans, including plans for the continuity of teaching and learning. Implement e-learning plans, including digital and distance-learning options as feasible and appropriate.
  • Determine, in consultation with school district officials or other relevant state or local partners:
      • If a waiver is needed for state requirements of a minimum number of in-person instructional hours or school days (seat time) as a condition for funding;
      • How to convert face-to-face lessons into online lessons and how to train teachers to do so;
      • How to triage technical issues if faced with limited IT support and staff;
      • How to encourage appropriate adult supervision while children are using distance-learning approaches; and
      • How to deal with the potential lack of students’ access to computers and the Internet at home.

Ensure continuity of meal programs.

  • Consider ways to distribute food to students. If there is community spread of covid-19, design strategies to avoid distribution in settings where people might gather in a group or crowd. Consider options such as “grab-and-go” bagged lunches or meal delivery.
  • Consider alternatives for providing essential medical and social services for students. Continue providing necessary services for children with special health-care needs, or work with the state Title V Children and Youth With Special Health Care Needs Program.
ADVICE FROM AASA, the School Superintendents Association:

AASA recognizes your concerns about the encroaching spread of covid-19 (coronavirus) and its potential impact on schools, and aims to provide the best, most up-to-date information available from the CDC. We are also working on other communications measures to keep you abreast of strategies, tools and recommendations.

At this time, no anti-viral treatment attacks the coronavirus, and individuals are being treated with pain relievers, cough syrup and other medications for the symptoms. So, it is important that we rely on prevention, as we did when advising superintendents about the swine flu (H1N1) in 2009. As we await guidance from the CDC on specific strategies for schools, AASA encourages you to follow common-sense strategies for preventing the spread of communicable diseases:

Individual level

Social Distancing When Ill

  • Ask parents to keep children home who exhibit cold and flu-like symptoms.
  • Encourage staff to refrain from coming to work if they have cold and flu-like symptoms.


  • Encourage all students to keep unwashed hands out of their mouths, eyes, etc.
  • Encourage all students to use anti-bacterial soap.

Classroom/School level

  • Have teachers review handwashing techniques with students.
  • Discourage the sharing of food.
  • Provide anti-bacterial soap rather than hand sanitizers in classrooms and bathrooms.
  • Encourage maintenance and classroom staff to use anti-bacterial products on all high-touch surfaces daily.
  • Increase frequency of school building cleaning by maintenance staff and upgrade via the use of more effective cleaning products.

System/District level

  • Provide clear and transparent communication to your communities, especially around any suspected or confirmed cases.
  • Ensure that your school nurses are vigilant in monitoring the student body, especially in cases where students exhibit symptoms associated with the virus.
  • Establish a process for determining whether students are contracting the virus and a system for reporting updates to health officials.
  • Share overall school strategies for dealing with the spread of the virus should the school/district be impacted.
  • Currently, public health officials are not recommending the use of masks or gloves in public settings.
  • At this time, federal health authorities are not recommending that schools cancel classes. Refer to your district policy on school closure should closure or dismissals become necessary.
  • Take action without stigmatizing any students, families or populations.
  • If you have planned out-of-district trips overseas or within the United States, consider cancellation if there are outbreaks at the destination.

And remember, while the coronavirus news is concerning, it is important to point out that there are other respiratory viruses like influenza circulating in schools. Fever, coughing and difficulty breathing are symptoms associated with all of them. Therefore, anyone exhibiting these symptoms should not be assumed to have covid-19.


What should schools be doing to prevent the spread of covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses?

According to the largest teachers union in the country: Review and continue to implement comprehensive cleaning and infection control plans (ICP). ICPs present a clear protocol for routine cleaning, sanitizing and targeted disinfecting, including steps to take in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. Custodial and maintenance staff should receive ongoing training on ICP protocols, products and procedures; usage of personal protective equipment; and hazard communications. ICPs should include:

  • Best practices and procedures that protect the health of product users and other building occupants. This includes the use of products that do not contain ingredients that are known to contribute to asthma, respiratory irritation or other health conditions, and Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants or sanitizers.
  • Procedures for areas considered high-risk (e.g. bathrooms, athletic areas, cafeteria or kitchen, health room or nurse’s office) and high-touch points (e.g. door handles, hand railings, lockers, shared desks and keyboards) that may require sanitizing and targeted disinfecting in addition to routine cleaning.
  • Follow the CDC’s recommended steps to properly and safely plan, prepare and respond to covid-19: CDC Interim Guidance for Childcare Programs and K-12 Schools

Ensure school nurses and other health professionals are equipped with the appropriate personal protective equipment, training and protocols for preventing the spread of covid-19.

Encourage staff and students to stay home and see a health-care provider if sick. Staff medical leave should not result in disciplinary action. Schools should also work with the school nurse or designee to develop a plan to identify and isolate students and staff who arrive at school sick.

Remind staff and students about good hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and other important health and safety practices. Students and staff should:

  • Wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available. Note: Schools should provide the time and supplies for students and staff to wash their hands when needed.
  • Cover their coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth.