(Photo courtesy of EdSource)

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Q: As a parent (or student) to what extent should I be concerned about the coronavirus in schools?

A: Health risk from the coronavirus remains low at this time, according to the California Department of Public Health. However, the California Department of Education is urging districts to prepare for the possible spread of the virus by identifying plans and protocols for communicating with families and plans for educating students while at home if schools are closed. As Gov. Gavin Newsom reiterated on March 12, the decision to close a school is made at the local level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for schools that includes precautions to take in communities where the virus has not been identified, as well as in communities where it has been confirmed.

Q: Have any schoolchildren in California been diagnosed with the coronavirus ?

A: Yes, a student who attends a private, Catholic school operated by the San Francisco Archdiocese, has tested positive for the virus resulting in the closing of 90 schools operated by the archdiocese from March 12-25. And a student at Maeola R. Beitzel Elementary School in the Elk Grove Unified School District also has tested positive for the virus, the district announced on March 9. The district moved its spring break up to this week closing March 7-13.

Of the 198 confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, four were reported in children ages 0-17,  113 were reported in adults ages 18-64, 79 were reported in adults 65 or older and two were in people whose ages were not known as of March 11, according to the California Department of Public Health.


Q:  What is the state recommending schools should do in response to the virus?

A: Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an  executive order to cancel non-essential gatherings of more than 250 people until at least the end of March. The order does not include classroom instruction which he described as “essential” but does cover assemblies and other gatherings.  He urged local officials to consult guidance sent out Saturday before deciding whether to close. Newsom said he considered the impact of school closures on low-income students who rely on school meals and students whose parents may be on the front lines of fighting the virus like law enforcement and medical professionals who would not be able to assist the community if they were home caring for their children. To distance students from each other, Newsom suggested that schools stagger P.E. classes, cancel assemblies and provide meals in classrooms or other isolated settings.

On March 9, Newsom met with Superintendent Tony Thurmond and county superintendents to hear their concerns about coronavirus and how it could impact schools. Kindra Britt, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said the California Department of Public Health is the lead agency working with districts to help them determine if school closures are necessary. She said the state Department of Education wants districts to do what’s in the best interests of their students and staff. The state will work out later on a case by case basis the concerns about state funding, which are based on attendance. The California Department of Public Health has issued a detailed set of recommendations for what school officials should do in response to the virus, outlining a range of scenarios. To read the guidance, go here.The California Department of Education has created a web page with resources and guidance for schools and districts here.

Q: What are school districts doing in response to the virus?

A: Responses range from closings to switching instruction to online. Check out your district’s website to see what your school district is doing and advising. Here are the most recent moves by districts in response to the virus:

The Los Angeles Unified School District voted March 13 to close schools effective Monday to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The district is the largest in California and second largest in the country serving more than 600,000 students.

Oakland Unified schools and child development centers will close March 16 through April 5. During the closure, the schools will each receive a deep cleaning, and employees will continue to work and be paid. Each school will figure out its own plan to provide assignments to students. Meals for the week will be offered to students at 12 schools to pick up on Mondays and Thursdays between 8 a.m. and noon.

The Diocese of San Jose closed all schools effective March 13 through March 27 with schools implementing their distance learning plans starting March 16. The schools have no reports of infection but are looking to limit the spread of the virus. “These measures we are taking not only protect our students, but also our neighbors and those most who may be most vulnerable to the health effects of this virus,” said Bishop Oscar Cantú, bishop of the Diocese of San José.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified is closing all schools to students March 13-16, but teachers and staff will report to work to plan for possible extended school closures starting March 17. The district will thoroughly clean schools because a community member with children in district schools was exposed to the virus and the district was experiencing a high rate of absenteeism. Officials will announce on March 17 whether the closures will continue.

West Contra Costa Unified is closing all schools for three weeks starting March 16 due to concerns over contact between students and staff members with others who may have coronavirus. It moved spring break from the week of April 6 to the week of March 30, with classes resuming April 6. The district will provide instruction online via laptops and tablets for students in grades 2-12, while younger students will take packets of work home. Meals will be offered from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at several schools during the first two weeks of the closure.

San Francisco Unified is closing all schools in the district March 16 through April 3 due to concerns about the spread of the virus. It plans to provide meals to students who rely on them and advises parents to avoid leaving children with elderly care givers, since they are most susceptible to the virus.

Natomas Unified is closing all schools in the district March 13-16 because a medically fragile student at Natomas High came to school with symptoms of the virus. The school will be deep-cleaned and district officials will announce Sunday whether schools will remain closed Tuesday.

Mt. Diablo Unified in central Contra Costa County announced it will close March 17 after a planned staff development day on March 16. They plan to maintain some student services during the closure, but details on which services or a projected date to reopen have not been announced.


Q: What are authorities telling school districts to communicate with the public? Do authorities recommend that I or my children take any precautions?

A: The California Department of Health recommends that schools and districts take “common sense precautions” that help prevent the spread of all diseases. These can also be practiced by children and their families. These include: keep children home if they are sick until a fever has been gone for at least 24 hours without the use of medicine; seek medical care immediately if symptoms, such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, become more severe; cover coughs with a sleeve or tissue; keep tissues and “no touch” trash cans close by; wash hands often and keep soap dispensers filled; clean frequently touched surfaces routinely; if desired, wear a face mask if you are coughing or sneezing. In addition, the CDC has released guidelines for creating a household plan of action related to the virus.

Q: What should I tell my child about the virus — if anything?

A: “Be honest and say there is a cold virus that is showing up in different countries,” said Yvonne Maldonado, director of Infection Control at Stanford Children’s Hospital. “It makes some people very sick, but most people — especially children — seem not to get very sick with it.” She added that so far, there are not very many cases of the virus in the U.S. “Right now,” she said, “it’s safe to carry out normal activities here.”

National Public Radio has created a comic to help parents talk to their children about the virus. And the independent national nonprofit The Child Mind Institute, which focuses on children’s mental health, has posted an article titled: “Talking to kids about the coronavirus: Kids worry more when they’re kept in the dark.”

Q: What if my school district has not communicated with me?

A:   Check out your school district’s website.  Also you may have missed online communications from your district, and make sure the district has your most up-to-date contact information.

“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures,” Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, said Tuesday. She also encouraged parents to “ask about plans for teleschool,” referring to online learning. Most schools are not able to offer online classes, however.

Q: Can I expect that all schools will be stocked with soap so students can wash their hands?

A: All public schools in California are required to keep their soap dispensers filled, according to the California Department of Education.

Q: Has the virus affected college programs or travel abroad?

A: Yes.

Many colleges in California and nationally have cancelled in-person classes and switched to online classes. Most universities have suspended travel abroad programs including the University of California which has suspended its overseas programs in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Italy. The California State University has also suspended its systemwide programs in China, South Korea and Italy.

Q: Have any college students been exposed to the virus?

A: Ten students at CSU Long Beach were under quarantine as of March 9 because they attended a conference in Washington, D.C., where three other attendees ended up testing positive for the virus. The students have not displayed any symptoms, but are in isolation “out of an abundance of caution,” the university says.

* Staff writers Patrick Hoge, Larry Gordon, Diana Lambert, Michael Burke and Louis Freedberg contributed to this report.

* This Q&A is being updated to reflect latest developments. It was last updated March 13 at 10:40 a.m.

Story originally published by EdSource.