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Schools hope for the best but prepare for coronavirus anyway

Emphasize preventive hygiene, review emergency plans

Before the coronavirus was daily front-page news, Rockford’s Roguewood Elementary School had its own mini-epidemic: 129 students absent out of 645 enrolled, or about 20 percent of the student body, on Jan. 20. Various strains of flu were the main culprit, with students suffering from vomiting, fever and other symptoms.

The wave of illness has since calmed down, with 94 percent attendance earlier this week. But the January onslaught gave Roguewood a trial run on how to respond to the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak.

Custodians wiped down each and every door, table and surface with disinfectant, and coated classrooms with a high-tech cleaning machine called the Clorox Total 360 System Electrostatic Sprayer. Those germ-fighting tools are still at the ready, but Roguewood, like other area schools, is also changing daily routines to protect against the coronavirus.

Students wash their hands frequently and thoroughly, and the school is bringing in a “Glo Germ” ultraviolet light to show students how many germs are left behind after a superficial washing. Teachers are greeting students at the classroom door with elbow bumps or air high-fives instead of handshakes or hugs. 

“All of it is about education in doses,” Principal Teya Cotter said, adding staff as well as students are reminded to get adequate rest and water. “We want kids to be healthy, not just when there’s a virus.”

Resist the Virus
Tips on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus

• Stay home when you are sick. If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness. Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
• Cover coughs and sneezes. Use a tissue to cover coughs and sneezes, then dispose of the tissue. When a tissue is not available, cough or sneeze into your elbow.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces or objects. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill.
• Wash hands for 20 seconds. Washing hands often under clean, running water can help prevent the spread of germs. For more guidance see the CDC: When and How to Wash Your Hands. If you cannot wash your hands, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60-95% alcohol.

Source: Grand Rapids Public Schools

Although no cases of coronavirus had been diagnosed in Michigan as of press time, local schools are gearing up for the possibility of its spread to West Michigan. It’s a tricky balance between taking prudent precautions and hoping for the best, while having contingency plans in case of the worst. 

“The last thing I want to do is exaggerate this, to use hyperbole,” said Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler. “But there is for sure a fear out there. It is a concern: Are we really prepared to deal with these issues as a country?”

Better to prepare too much than not enough, he added: “If we err on safety, we err on safety.” 

Plans and Policies in Place  

Local schools are on the forefront of concern for parents as the new coronavirus continues to spread worldwide. The United States saw its 14th death Friday from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and has confirmed more than 225 cases, NBC News reported. Globally, the coronavirus has infected more than 100,000 people and killed more than 3,400, according to Johns Hopkins University, and almost 300 million students in 13 countries have had their schools closed, CNN reported.

‘As testing becomes more readily available, I expect that we will eventually identify cases of COVID-19.’

– Adam London, Kent County Health Department administrative health officer

Leaders of Kent ISD schools hope it doesn’t come to that here, but say they’re prepared if closings are necessary due to a confirmed case in one of their buildings. Any decision to close would be made between the superintendent and Kent County Health Department (KCHD), officials say. 

“I have no hesitation of closing a building or closing the school district if I had to in order to protect people,” Shibler said. And while Rockford would be able to teach classes online, because all students have individual devices, the Michigan Department of Education would have to approve that as instructional days, he cautioned. 

Of more immediate concern to school officials is instituting good health practices to protect students and staff not just from the coronavirus but from the flu, which has taken a heavy toll this season with an estimated 18,000 U.S. deaths.  Superintendents are in close contact with KCHD as well as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff.

While not minimizing the potential threat of the virus, he said districts already have plans and protocols in place for reacting to any communicable disease including flu outbreaks. Communication to parents has focused on building awareness and education on the coronavirus by sharing links to information by trusted sources, Caniff said, adding the goal is to “inform but not alarm.” 

“To panic would be the worst thing anyone can do, but at the same time we want to be prudent and prepared if there is an outbreak in the community,” he said. “If we prepare for the worst and hope for the best, that’s the proper course.”

Roguewood Elementary fourth graders Darien Potter, left, and Brody Armstrong demonstrate the air high-five many teachers have started using to greet students (courtesy photo)

Schools Team with Health Department 

The Kent County Health Department is in close contact with school officials, appointing a special liaison to districts and offering guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Adam London, KCHD administrative health officer. Foremost in that guidance is “keeping sick students and staff at home,” London said, a point he emphasizes in a video providing preventive health tips for the public. 

“As testing becomes more readily available, I expect that we will eventually identify cases of COVID-19,” London said by email. “As those situations develop we will isolate sick people and quarantine close contacts. We will also work with the schools on a case-by-case basis to apply scientific knowledge to unique situations. This will help us make decisions that are reasonable and protective of public health.”

The KCHD offers online updates for the public, and school districts are keeping their parents informed with emails and letters, including Rockford, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Public Schools. View district letters regarding the coronavirus

‘The last thing I want to do is exaggerate this, to use hyperbole. But there is for sure a fear out there.’

— Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler

They’re also fielding calls from concerned parents, some wondering whether it’s safe to send their children to school, said GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt. 

“The most we can do is to assure parents, staff and students that we have a policy and process on communicable disease, that we’re doing everything possible to ensure we’ll be prepared and responsive if there is a case of coronavirus or any other communicable disease,” he said. “It is safe to send your children to school.” 

But the big caveat, he added: If your child is showing flu-like symptoms, keep them home.

School Nurses Keeping Busy 

Almost all GRPS schools have school health aides, who are overseen by registered nurses, said Kim Baron, an RN and director of health services. In a partnership, Spectrum Health provides the aides and GRPS employs the nurses. They follow long-established district protocols for communicable diseases, including keeping students showing symptoms in an isolated space until a parent or guardian can pick them up. 

“We’re treating it just like we would if we had students who had symptoms of influenza,” Baron said. “Our nurses and aides are experts in monitoring of communicable diseases.”

Although her staff is always busy during flu season, the threat of the coronavirus has ramped up vigilance. Baron said she constantly checks the latest developments from health agencies and relays them to teachers and other staff.

“I’m laying in bed at night reading updates, instead of reading a novel I would like to read,” she said.

Erin Albanese contributed to this report 


Fact sheet on coronavirus from Michigan Department of Health & Human Services

From NPR: Cartoons explain coronavirus to kids

Coronavirus tips for parents from the Crisis Management Institute

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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