Early reports indicate children infected by the coronavirus experience a milder response than older adults. But as it arrives in Northern California, school and college officials are preparing for a growing likelihood that the highly contagious virus will disrupt learning and spark panic in young people and their naturally protective caretakers.
As dorms are being disinfected and exposed students are forced into quarantine, administrators are considering adding more cleaning staff while eyeing remote learning and independent study options to keep everyone from kindergartners to college seniors from veering off their academic schedules.
Already, community colleges have been asked to review emergency plans, and the California State University system is looking at repurposing its online learning system — built so students could take classes at sister campuses — in order to keep lessons going.
In Solano County northeast of San Francisco, where the nation’s first community spread was detected, K-12 public schools are offering parents the option of having their children learn from home through independent study. Other school districts, such as Sacramento, are dispatching nurses to give hand washing lessons and demonstrate the right way to cover a cough or sneeze. Students who get sick will get extra time to complete assignments.
All these precautions come with some encouraging news for youth: A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association identified nine infants with the virus in Wuhan, China, who were hospitalized and none experienced severe complications beyond fevers and coughs. Still, federal health officials are warning — and past experiences show — California can expect more students to stay home in the event of a widespread transmission of the coronavirus.
Independent study offered to students
California, with its volume of travelers crisscrossing the Pacific, was an early state to be hit by the virus. Now, new infections are being reported by the day. Solano County was the nation’s first case of community spread, meaning a person was infected without traveling internationally or being in close contact with anyone known to have it. A second case was reported late Friday in Santa Clara County.
The Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, Solano County’s largest district, received a flood of messages from concerned parents following reports that a county resident had contracted the virus, said Tim Goree, the district’s executive director of administrative services.
Goree said school employees have been vigilant about disinfecting surfaces, and that the district may hire more cleaners.
Fairfield-Suisun is no stranger to temporary school closures, having closed during the 2017 wine country wildfires. But there’s a distinction between shutting down due to poor air quality versus the invisible threat of an infectious disease.
“We haven’t been given any kind of chart or anything that says, ‘when you have this amount of exposure, here’s what you do,’” Goree said.
The district, which issues Chromebooks to students, has offered concerned parents the option to enroll them in short-term independent study. It’s not known yet if any families are doing so.
Goree said independent study is more challenging for both teachers and students because it means students are not learning in a structured setting.
“What we tell people is, if you have the means to keep your kid home and you feel like your kid’s not safe, then keep them home,” Goree said. “But we’re going to keep schools open as long as we think schools are a safer place for some of our kids than being at home by themselves.”
Asking colleges to be ready to go online
California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley has asked campuses to prepare contingency plans in the event of a shutdown. Some colleges could start delivering classes online in the event of a closure, said spokesman Paul Feist.
“They’re taking precautions and staying vigilant — no one’s panicking or anything like that,” said Feist. “The threat, as it is right now, is low, but we need to prepare in the event that that changes.”
So far, three students at Sacramento-area community colleges have been exposed to a patient believed to be carrying the coronavirus, the Los Rios Community College District reported.
The students were believed to have been exposed while working off-campus as medical professionals. In two cases, at American River College and Cosumnes River College, the students returned to campus after being exposed; the third student, at Sacramento City College, did not. County health officials have asked the students to isolate themselves for 14 days, but did not recommend closing the campuses.
At UC Davis, workers are continuing to disinfect dorms and other high-traffic areas, even after a student exposed to the coronavirus tested negative for COVID-19, according to the school. Two roommates of that student were also released from quarantine.
California State University started shutting down studying abroad programs in South Korea, which has seen the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside China. The university system had already recalled students studying in China, said spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp.
Uhlenkamp said the arrival of the virus in California has administrators asking: “What does it mean, now that we know it’s here?”
Universities may try to repurpose online learning systems in the event of campus shutdowns. For example, CSU offers online classes through its CourseMatch system, which is designed to allow students to take virtual classes at other campuses.
School shutdowns remain rare, absenteeism could go up
It’s rare for California’s K-12 public schools to shut down because of infectious diseases and outbreaks, according to CalMatters’ historical database of emergency school closures.
Between 2002 and 2018, there were 72 emergency school closures due to infectious diseases. More than one-third of those school closures were in 2009 during the swine flu epidemic.
But during that outbreak, more than 1,100 schools in 23 counties reported significant declines in attendance — meaning more than 10 percent of students stayed home. State records indicate attendance was depressed for weeks and, in some cases, months.
And school closures tend to have a greater impact on disadvantaged students.
More than 60 percent of the state’s students rely on schools for breakfast and lunch — meals they might miss at home. In addition, despite investments in technology, many students in rural and impoverished swaths of the state lack reliable internet access.
Children appear to be more resilient
So far, no children in the U.S. have been reported to be infected (as of March 2). Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious disease at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, said there may be kids who have been infected but don’t know it, especially if they experience only mild symptoms.
“They are not getting sick enough to seek medical attention,” said Blumberg, who hosts a podcast called Kids Considered, which last week focused on the virus. “It could be just like other illnesses. Some are more severe in children and some are more severe in adults.”
He pointed to chickenpox or mono as examples of illnesses that tend to appear mild in young children but more severe in adults.
“On the one hand, there is a great worry because everyone is susceptible to it,” Blumberg said. “On the other hand, the vast majority of cases are mild.”
How to talk to your child
If your child asks about the virus or expresses fear, experts recommend talking it through. Ask questions, such as, “What have you heard?” or “What are your concerns?” Respond directly and try not to over-explain the situation.
David Ross, a sixth-grade teacher in Sonoma County’s Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, said the coronavirus has dominated chatter in classrooms and the cafeteria.
During his sixth-period class, a student asked if he could work outside the classroom after a student sitting next to him sneezed. Another student showed up the next day wearing a mask.
“I think that anxiety is permeating everything they do right now,” Ross said.
Instead, Ross has focused on teaching proper hygiene, giving geography lessons detailing the virus’ spread, and dispelling social media rumors. He, too, is waiting for more instruction.
“We have active shooter training, we have earthquake drills, we have fire drills, we have all kinds of drills,” Ross said. “Nobody’s got a drill for an infectious disease.”
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.