Are Massachusetts Schools Ready for a Coronavirus Outbreak?

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For Andres Cedillo, it's hard to imagine how disruptive it would be if his son's school in Worcester was shuttered by a viral outbreak.

Like thousands of parents across Massachusetts, Cedillo is weighing how the spread of a new coronavirus that originated in China and has since moved to the United States and 75 other countries might affect his family.

Federal officials warned last week the virus, dubbed COVID-19, could cause major disruptions in the United States, including the potential closure of elementary and secondary schools in communities where it gains a foothold.

For Cedillo, caring for his son at home during the school day would be a major inconvenience.

"How are we going to work, pay our bills?" he said. "It's too much to think about now that I start to get worried."

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda hopes it never comes to that. But she’s paying attention as school districts grapple with the prospect of a global pandemic.

“We are in constant communication with public health so we would call them and ask for their advice on that,” she said.

Many school leaders sharpened their focus on the emerging threat posed by the virus after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded a note of caution on Feb. 25, warning schools should plan for contingencies as more people are infected.

In Rhode Island, a Catholic high school in Pawtucket closed this week after a staff member contracted COVID-19 during a trip to Italy in mid-February. In Massachusetts, students in Bellingham and Newton were also recently told to stay home and monitor their health after returning from trips to Italy.

Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley also recently called attention to the challenges coronavirus could pose. The state circulated a letter to all school districts last week, reminding them that the risk of infection in Massachusetts is currently low, and providing guidance on how to handle students or staff who present symptoms of the virus.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker urged high schools in Massachusetts to cancel any planned trips abroad.

“Taking this precaution will help protect both the students and the commonwealth,” he said.

In its guidance for school districts, the CDC advised those that don't have cases of COVID-19 within their communities to review their emergency plans, come up with a good communication system and perform routine cleaning. For locations where the disease has surfaced, the CDC advises administrators to consider if schools may need to be dismissed, and to look into options such as educating students online.

While that may be feasible in some schools, Binienda said it would be all but impossible in her district.

“There are so many of our homes that don’t have any internet access or Wi-Fi,” she said.

Like many urban school districts, Worcester also doesn’t have enough take-home computers to go around. Binienda said older kids could study textbooks or work on papers at home, and younger students would be encouraged to read books or work on homework.

For the time being, Binienda said Worcester is focused on prevention. That means encouraging kids to practice good hygiene by washing their hands and coughing into their elbows. Staff are also keeping soap stocked in bathrooms and spot cleaning classrooms, and school nurses are tracking illnesses and absences.

“In the past, we’ve always said it’s really important to come to school every single day, and now we’re saying if you don’t feel well, stay home,” Binienda said.

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