UPDATE: February 25, 2020: Due to the spread of coronavirus, the CDC is suggesting schools prepare for possible increased employee absences and dismissals of early childhood programs and K-12 schools as a result of higher levels of absenteeism. Cross-training personnel is among the agency's recommendations to ensure schools continue to operate in the case of absent staff. Schools can also consider digital days if more staff and students stay home due to illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined the outbreak of the new coronavirus, a respiratory illness marked by flu symptoms including cough, shortness of breath and fever, could reach pandemic levels. There are currently at least 11 known cases in the U.S., experts stated on a press call Tuesday morning, with additional suspected cases under review.
A lack of government guidance has left frontline workers, including school nurses, with little information to navigate the virus.
But there are still steps districts can take to ensure nurses and school communities are prepared, including educating themselves and others on the virus and its symptoms, ensuring nurses have resources needed to screen for symptoms, and providing staff members who decide to self-quarantine with pay.
“Given the growing epidemic nature of this virus, we need to do what we did when Ebola was very problematic,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said on a press call.
But Jacqueline Moline, an occupational and environmental medicine specialist, said she has noticed an absence of concrete guidance from the government. “Some of the information is rather opaque,” Moline said, leaving frontline workers in a “loop” between state agencies and the CDC.
But, even with the lack of updated official guidance, school leaders and nurses should be “proactive instead of reactive,” said Michelle Thoman, a nurse and representative of the Ohio Nurses Association. This includes reviewing general infection protocols along with CDC guidelines for this specific virus, being transparent with the community, and being informed with the correct information about the virus, including its symptoms and how it’s spread.
School leaders can also ensure school nurses are prepared with adequate resources, including masks, gloves and aprons.
At the same time, preventing hysteria is just as important, and, considering it’s still flu season, there will be many people exhibiting flu symptoms that could be mistaken for coronavirus. Making sure everyone is vaccinated, encouraging frequent handwashing, thoroughly checking (i.e. making sure there are no erroneous readings) for fevers, and educating staff members about the virus to prevent misinformation are all places to start.
“If a child presents [symptoms], you should ask their travel history and if they have recently been to China,” Moline said. “If the answer is no, they should be treated as anyone else who may have the flu or bug prior to November —because chances are that’s what it is.”
But if there is a possibility a staff member has had contact with the coronavirus, Weingarten said principals and superintendents should work to provide staff paid leave if they decide to self-quarantine, pointing to a recent incident where someone who had just returned from China chose to take the precaution after discussing the possibility with their principal even though they didn’t show symptoms.
"There can be a false sense of security if people aren't showing symptoms," Moline said, considering the virus can be spread even in the absence of a fever and other symptoms.
“People are living paycheck to paycheck and cannot just take time off,” Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said. “The people who feel the effect the most are working Americans.”