COVID-19 Outbreak in U.S. Schools

Public School 20 in New York City. Around the nation, school officials and parents were flummoxed by the sudden warning that if a coronavirus epidemic hit the United States, school buildings could be shut down for a long time.

By Dana Goldstein and Julie Bosman

Schools in the United States prepare for all manner of disasters and threats, whether hurricanes, mass shooters, tornadoes, influenza or head lice. Around the nation, school officials and parents were flummoxed by the sudden warning that if a coronavirus epidemic hit the United States, school buildings could be shut down for long periods of time, leaving children sequestered at home. In alerting that the coronavirus will almost certainly spread in the United States, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said she had contacted her own local school superintendent this week and asked if the district was prepared. She advised parents to do the same.

And she suggested that a temporary system of “internet-based teleschooling” could replace traditional schools. Schools have limited expertise in providing instruction online on a large scale. And parents would be forced to juggle their own work responsibilities with what could amount to “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling,” said Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America, a think tank. She told her mother that her elementary school classmates were gripped by fears about the coronavirus, and she asked when it was coming and how many people it would kill.

Conley, 35, a freelance writer, said of the children’s anxieties. Kosuth said that evidence from China suggested that children were more resilient to the coronavirus than adults were. Carvalho, superintendent of one of the nation’s largest school districts, said his system’s preparation for hurricanes put it at an advantage in preparing for the coronavirus. The district has provided laptops, tablets and smartphones for some students to take home, as well as internet connectivity for some low-income students.

“I was a bit surprised that it took this long to offer national guidance specifically to school districts,” Mr. Many districts have already sent home letters about the coronavirus, asking parents to keep sick children away from school and to remember basic prevention measures such as hand washing, cough covering and vaccination against the flu. School officials have often tried to ratchet down panic among parents, reminding families that face masks are not broadly recommended and that the overall risk of infection is low. But few districts have publicly addressed what would happen to classes in the case of widespread infection and school closings like those that have taken place in China, Italy and Bahrain. Further complicating matters, not all families have home computers and high-speed internet.

While 90 percent of households with children under 18 had broadband access in 2016, according to federal data, gaps remained along the lines of income, race and education level. While school districts may not be ready for widespread remote learning, many of the larger districts have had plans for the possibility of pandemics for years, according to Chris Dorn, a school safety consultant with the nonprofit Safe Havens International. Districts without such plans will need to work with local health agencies to come up with protocols, he said. In the San José Unified School District in California, Melinda Landau, who manages school nursing, said the district’s response to flu season would also help in the case of a coronavirus outbreak.

Schools with clusters of sick students are cleaned more deeply with disinfecting products. There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the district, Ms. Their parents voluntarily kept them home from school for a time to monitor their health. Going forward, the district is waiting to see how the coronavirus progresses, Ms.

Closing schools may not be the best option, especially since children appear to be at lower risk of infection, said Amy Acton, the director of Ohio’s health department. Beyond contingency plans for closing, she said, schools need to consider lining up substitute teachers and planning for absences of other staff members, like cafeteria workers. “Schools can be telling families what they can be doing to stay healthy, and we can teach about viruses, and what is a zoonotic disease? Why is it important to get a flu vaccine?” Dr. .