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Questions but few answers as school districts prepare for COVID-19

Nearly 300 million children around the globe are out of school because of closings ordered to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

What would it take to close a school here?

That is one of the big questions school leaders are grappling with, in light of the spread of COVID-19, with students in quarantine, schools closing downstate to disinfect and colleges canceling trips abroad.

And despite frequent updates from local, state and federal health officials, many are still looking for answers.

“What’s the threshold, for when a student or staff member has been positively identified with the virus, before you close a school?” said Kriner Cash, superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools.  “Then, you do what and for how long?”

"Right now, I don't have any clear guidance," Cash said. "I still have more questions than answers around this urgent matter that's evolving rapidly every day."

School districts on Friday received a little more insight from health officials on their plan of attack.

Local superintendents were told that, depending on the severity of the situation, schools could be closed regionally for up to as much as six weeks, according to Cash.

No one in Western New York has been found to be infected, and experts say the risk of most individuals contracting the illness is low.

But it is clear the situation and guidance changes from day to day.

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For instance, a group of Amherst Central High School students and their teacher were in school for more than a week after returning from a trip to Italy over winter break. Then, the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed to recommend travelers voluntarily quarantine themselves for two weeks after returning from Italy. So the 12 students and teacher agreed to quarantine themselves.

School leaders are scrambling to keep up, despite being in constant contact with local health departments. One superintendent said he had received 36 emails on the new coronavirus before 11 a.m. one morning last week.

"We've had a few students come in with masks on," said Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls City School District. "We haven't told them to remove them, but we have told parents and kids they really aren't effective."

For now, districts are doing what they can with what they can control.

In Buffalo, for example, the district has stockpiled cleaning supplies to sanitize buildings. The superintendent has told staff to stay home if they are feeling ill. He also has postponed out-of-state class trips and canceled trips to high-risk countries.

A number of districts are checking their technology capabilities to determine if they could continue instruction in case of a long-term closure.

“In the back of my mind, we would have a contingency for a possible distance-learning program,” Laurrie said. “Is that fleshed out completely? No.”

The New York State Council of School Superintendents quickly arranged an update on the virus for superintendents at its annual conference last week.

"There's a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know how this virus will spread," said Robert Lowry, the council's deputy director.

[Related: Uptick in coronavirus cases leads to a state of emergency for New York]

Even with the dissemination of information, two-thirds of school board members told the state School Boards Association they need additional guidance and support to prepare for an outbreak of the new coronavirus. Even more of the 390 polled – 70% – said protocols for monitoring illness in students and staff would be the most helpful guidance they could get from local and state health officials.

School leaders have two main concerns at this time, Lowry said.

"What standards should be applied in deciding whether to close?" Lowry said. "If it's necessary for a school to close for more than a couple days, what are the consequences of that? And how would we provide for continuity of instruction?"

Schools that do not have a confirmed case of COVID-19 in their communities should review and update emergency plans, establish procedures for those who get sick at school, monitor absenteeism and create plans for communication, the CDC said.

Custodian Jeanne Dunbar wipes down a pre-K classroom table with disinfectant after school as part of the daily cleaning regimen at Southside Elementary School, a process that takes on new urgency amid concerns about the novel coronavirus. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The first step for schools in communities that do have a confirmed case is to talk with local health officials, according to the CDC. If a student or staff member attended school and was sick, the health department may recommend temporarily closing the school to halt the spread of the illness.

"Local health officials’ recommendations for the scope (e.g., a single school, a full district) and duration of school dismissals will be made on a case-by-case basis based on the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 and the specific cases in the impacted community," the CDC states in its guidance to schools.

During a school dismissal, students remain home while healthy teachers and staff report to school to develop and provide lessons for remote learning and other services, according to the CDC. If schools are closed, they should ensure the continuity of education and meal programs, it recommends.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein has echoed those recommendations.

Should the virus become more of a local threat, schools will be encouraged to break students up into smaller learning groups and prepare for the potential need for distance-learning options, she said. If a student at a particular school is found to be positive for the virus, school officials would need to consider temporary school closure.

[Related: Hospitals, nursing homes in WNY prepare for COVID-19]

Buffalo is discussing a contingency plan, but the district acknowledged that online learning would be difficult for students in a large, urban district, where many families may not be able to afford internet access.

And while Cash is prepared to close in the short term, the superintendent raised concerns about shutting down for an extended period of time because so many kids rely on school for their daily needs, whether it's their meals or access to health care. He has reached out to Say Yes Buffalo and faith-based organizations to help with delivering breakfast and lunch to students should it come to that.

While there is not specific guidance from local, state and federal agencies on some issues, such as possible closing, West Seneca Superintendent Matthew Bystrak is confident the support is there.

"If it came down to having to make that decision, we wouldn’t be doing it in isolation," he said, adding that the Erie County Health Department has been very responsive to his questions. "We’d be doing it on informed medical advice."

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This isn't the first worldwide health issue to confront schools. The swine flu, H1N1, hit in 2009, with some schools reporting absenteeism as high as 30%. At least one local school closed. The CDC also is recommending schools discourage perfect attendance awards or incentives.

Fourteen countries have closed all the schools within their borders, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO also said there are localized school closures in 13 additional countries.

"Would we be prepared to close? Absolutely, if you're talking about a matter of student safety or staff safety," Bystrak said.

Gowanda Central closed Feb. 7 in the midst of a mini-outbreak of cold and flu. The closing wasn't because too many students were sick. It was because of the inability to get substitutes to cover the sick teachers' classrooms.

"We just did not have enough adult supervision to run the school," Superintendent Robert Anderson said, adding that in addition to teachers out with the flu, "the subs themselves were also sick."

Schools were cleaned and disinfected, and attendance rebounded, he said.

"We’re trying to remain calm and steady," said Laurrie, of Niagara Falls.

"We have been monitoring the number of students who are absent and sent home from school," Laurrie said. "Nothing is really on the uptick. In fact, some of our attendance rates are better than normal because of the mild winter."

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