‘We need to be prepared’: Local schools, colleges prep for coronavirus

  • This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. CDC via AP

Staff Writer
Published: 3/2/2020 1:59:32 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Quarantine procedures. Updated cleaning protocols and calls for vigilant hygiene. Contingency plans for students to work remotely.

These are just some of the plans that schools across the Pioneer Valley are making as worries grow about the coronavirus disease known as COVID-19. So far, there has only been one confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the state — a man in the Boston area. But on Wednesday, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, said that people should begin preparing for the coronavirus to spread in the United States.

“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

The CDC has recommended that schools, workplaces, health care institutions and households plan and prepare their responses to a possible COVID-19 outbreak in their community. For schools in areas such as the Pioneer Valley that do not have a COVID-19 outbreak identified, recommendations include working with local health departments to disseminate information about the disease and its possible transmission.

“I believe that’s the same course all of the districts have taken, which is why our letters looked so similar,” Northampton Superintendent John Provost said, referencing the letters that many local school districts have sent to families, detailing their current preparations. Holyoke, Northampton and Easthampton schools, for example, all sent messages home based on information from the state Department of Public Health.

The districts said they are working with local health departments, and they warned students and families that the best defense against the coronavirus is good hygiene: washing hands with soap; not touching your face; covering coughs and sneezes; staying away from those who are sick or staying home if you’re sick yourself; and cleaning frequently touched objects, such as keyboards, with alcohol wipes or soap and water.

“We revised our cleaning checklists last year to promote safety and health and are reviewing the recently released DPH documents to further refine them based on their guidance,” wrote Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris and the district’s nurse manager, Jill Conselino. “As usual, our custodial staff did a deep cleaning of all of the buildings over the February break while staff and students were away.”

Provost said that Northampton has a “safe schools plan” that includes protocols for pandemic influenza and infectious disease response.

“Based upon those protocols,” Provost said, the district is in “the mitigation/prevention phase of operations, which is about making sure the public has as much information as possible about the known factors to prevent the spread of the virus.”

The CDC’s guidance goes on to recommend monitoring absenteeism and being flexible with attendance and sick-leave policies to ensure that staff and students stay home if they’re sick.

A host of challenges

Northampton has not yet laid out plans for school dismissals and the digital or “distance-learning” options that would accompany any possible closures. Those are steps the CDC recommends for schools that have identified cases of COVID-19 in their community; several schools in the Northwest have closed in efforts to contain the virus.

“Our current plan hasn’t contemplated going to a fully online platform, and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to having that type of discussion,” Provost said Friday.

Some districts are beginning to make those distance-learning plans now, though, as more information spread over the weekend about COVID-19 cases in the United States.

“I think we need to be prepared, and I think we are going to start having that conversation now,” Holyoke Superintendent Stephen Zrike said. “Obviously, for us, it does present some different challenges. All of our students don’t have access to technology at home, for example.”

Other area schools with international students attending, including local colleges, have had to make more detailed preparations to accommodate students who might not be able to travel home for upcoming breaks.

The Easthampton-based, private Williston Northampton School, for example, has some students from countries designated by the CDC as Level 3, its highest warning — China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Venezuela. Those students are likely unable to go home to their families during the school’s spring break, which lasts from March 7 through March 23.

Ann Hallock, Williston’s director of communications, said the school has been planning for this scenario since January.

“We’re really steadfast in our commitment to supporting our international students, many of whom are really facing incredible challenges — not being able to come home and worry for their families,” Hallock said.

Hallock said the school has worked with those students to find arrangements to stay with family in the United States or with other guardians. The school is also offering a chaperoned trip within the United States for those wanting to travel during the break.

In Northampton, Smith College has set up support for students who can’t or don’t want to travel to areas affected by COVID-19. The school has waived housing fees during spring break for any student who wants to stay on campus.

Smith, which has suspended operations including study abroad trips in Level 3 countries, is also finalizing its quarantine protocols. That work includes finding ways to continue academics if campus needs to be closed at any point.

“Additionally, the Office of Admission is tracking the effect of travel restrictions on admitted students,” college President Kathleen McCartney stated in a letter to campus. “Should travel restrictions not permit an admitted student to enroll in the fall of 2020, the college will allow that student to defer the offer of admission for one year.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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