Minnesota schools are busy drafting response plans should the coronavirus hit classrooms here in the wake of warnings from national health officials that a U.S. outbreak is inevitable.
The virus continues to spread in Iran, Italy and South Korea. Officials in Japan last week ordered all schools closed until April. Closer to home, U.S. officials recently announced two schools in Oregon and Washington linked to coronavirus cases will shut down for several days and undergo a thorough cleaning.
But Minnesota health officials said a confirmed case here won’t automatically trigger school closures. Until the coronavirus, or COVID-19, is confirmed here, it’s unclear what actions schools will take.
“We really haven’t had a pandemic before,” said Jolene Goldade, a spokeswoman for Hopkins Public Schools. “I can’t think of a situation where we had to close for [something] health-related.”
Closing schools — especially for months — would be a last resort, school officials say, but it’s also something weighing heavily on their minds as the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) shifts its emphasis from containment to community mitigation.
“It’s very likely that we will see cases in Minnesota,” said Kris Ehresmann, MDH director of infectious disease. “If you can’t keep it out, then you want to slow it down.”
Community mitigation comes into play, along with isolation and quarantine, when there’s evidence of widespread global transmission, like we’re seeing now, Ehresmann said. Mitigation could include canceling large gatherings, working from home or closing school.
Ehresmann said MDH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are warning communities that an outbreak will require everyone’s attention.
“We really need the whole community to be part of a successful response. Whenever school closure is mentioned it’s a red flag,” she said. “We want people to be aware that increasing spread and transmission means their daily lives can be impacted — including school. We don’t want to predetermine what that will be, but we want it on people’s radar screens.”
Even so, Ehresmann says parents shouldn’t necessarily expect classes to be canceled. During a widespread swine flu outbreak in Minnesota a decade ago, she said, only Cold Spring schools closed.
School officials say they’ve learned some lessons from the swine flu and 2017 measles outbreaks.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t our first rodeo in Minneapolis Public Schools,” said spokesman Dirk Tedmon. “This is something we’re familiar with. We have protocols in place.”
Cynthia Hiltz, a licensed school nurse and health service coordinator for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, said last week MDH called school nurses to go over recommendations in a rapidly changing plan. Mostly, precautions mirror those for influenza: cover your cough, wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick.
Some districts, such as Rochester, St. Paul and Mounds View, are sharing those protocols and updates in e-mails to parents, while Eastern Carver County, Anoka-Hennepin, Prior Lake-Savage Area and South Washington County districts are holding off to avoid causing panic.
“We don’t want to raise the alarm for something that is not yet a reality in our state,” said Pepe Barton, a spokesman for the South Washington County district.
Rochester Public Schools said they are continually coordinating with Olmsted County Public Health Services to keep up with the latest information. District spokeswoman Heather Nessler said in a statement that Rochester has a strong network with Mayo Clinic and health services to “assure we are working together to prepare, plan, and respond in the best way possible for the health and safety of our community.”
“For now, it is business as usual,” Nessler said.
But as the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow, MDH is ramping up outreach efforts and talking about “social distancing” and “non-pharmaceutical intervention” with businesses and schools.
“With a novel disease like that, we don’t have a vaccine available, we don’t have antivirals that are specific for this, and so we don’t have some of the tools in our toolbox like we have with others,” Ehresmann said.
This week, MDH is talking with schools about ways to minimize disruptions and avoid unintended consequences if classes are canceled. “For a number of children, school is a key source of nutrition,” Ehresmann said.
She said school nurses are conferring with MDH officials to ensure accurate assessments of illnesses are made so they aren’t excluding children based on irrational fears, such as, “This student looks Asian so we’re going to be concerned, or this child traveled.”
The risk of becoming sick with the virus remains low in Minnesota, so MDH is not recommending that schools cancel events or extracurricular activities.
School staffs are taking stock of e-learning capabilities — which is not uniform across the state — and weighing the effects closures would have on staff salaries, student meals and the school calendar. MDH has created a coronavirus webpage with information specifically for schools.
This article contains material from the Associated Press.