Washington Schools Aggressively Try to Prevent Spread of Coronavirus

One district is going to a card-based system rather than a keypad for buying lunches at elementary schools to reduce student contact with shared items. Welcome to school in the age of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

by Marissa Heffernan, The Daily News, Longview, Wash. / March 6, 2020

(TNS) — In the Woodland School District, school cafeterias have shut down the salad bars. Students are no longer putting unopened snacks on “share tables.” And janitorial staff have stepped up cleaning efforts of hard surfaces, buses and computer keyboards.

The district is also going to a card-based system rather than a keypad system for buying lunches at elementary schools to reduce student contact with shared items.

Welcome to school in the age of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

Woodland seems to be the most aggressive among local public school systems in preventing the spread of the disease, which has appeared all over the world and is causing social disruption, even though there were no cases reported in Cowlitz County as of Thursday.

But other schools are taking steps and preparing, encouraging more hand-washing and making plans for “distance learning” if it becomes necessary.

One of those is St. Rose Catholic School in Longview, where teachers and staff are focusing on prevention for now, Principal Catherine Strader said. However, the Archdiocese of Seattle, which manages all Catholic schools in Western Washington, has directed them to create plans for students to learn from home.

“We do have staff working on distance learning plans in case we do need to empty the school for a period of time to keep everyone safe,” Strader said Thursday.

For younger students, plans include a daily video lesson and some attached worksheets sent to parents’ emails, Strader said. Older students would use Google Classroom to connect virtually with teachers.

Communication with parents has also been key, Strader said, to reassure them that the school is preparing.

“We sent out some information earlier this week regarding our expectations should the coronavirus be more present in Longview, and then connected parents to Washington Heath Department resources online,” Strader said.

Woodland, Kelso and Longview public school students have also been reminded of good hand-washing techniques, to reduce physical contact and to cover coughs and sneezes, according to district officials.

Woodland schools will likely close for a minimum of 48 hours if a Woodland student is diagnosed with a confirmed case of COVID-19, a district press release said.

Kelso plans to follow guidance from the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to determine school closures, Kelso spokeswoman Michele Nerland said. A Kelso press release said there is soap, water and hand sanitizer available for staff and student use.

A Longview press release said if the coronavirus “does become a problem in Cowlitz County the school district will take swift action, based on advice and direction from the Health Department, to protect students, employees and citizens.”

Katy Payne, director of communicators for OSPI, said districts should listen to and work with local health officers.

“What King County Public Health has told districts is they will close schools if the school has a confirmed case. And beyond that, I think it really is case-by-case,” Payne said Thursday. “One district may close after a confirmed case for a day or two, but in another district if the health officer believed the infected person may have had more contact with others in the school, they may close the school for longer.”

A Tuesday OSPI press release said districts should not only encourage good hygiene and routinely clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces, but also “intentionally and persistently” combat stigma and communicate with local health agencies. Asians have reportedly been targeted with taunts and other ridicule because the disease first arose in Wuhan, China.

Kelso school officials echoed that advice in a Tuesday press release.

“We are reminding this team and our community to intentionally combat stigma,” the press release said. “COVID-19 is not connected to race, ethnicity, or nationality. Stigma will not help to fight the illness; however sharing accurate information during a time of heightened concern is critical.”

An OSPI press release also counseled schools to consider COVID-19-related absences excused.

“We know that fears may be high as identified cases increase, particularly for families with loved ones living in the home who have a compromised immune system,” the press release said. “Please exercise great caution before deciding not to excuse absences related to COVID-19 and starting the truancy process because of them.”

If schools do close in response to the disease, the OSPI press release said emergency waivers for the missed days are available, but “districts should make every effort to make up missed time, including using scheduled vacation days and planned school closure days.”

The OSPI press release also warned that schools should not try distance learning unless it can be provided to all students, including students who don’t have access to technology at home.

“In addition, districts need to consider how distance learning will affect students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals,” the press release said. “For most of you, it will likely make more sense to cancel school.”

According to the OSPI website, at least 26 public and private schools have closed so far for various amounts of time due to COVID-19.

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©2020 The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

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