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Independent Schools Prepare for Coronavirus

By Net Assets posted 02-10-2020 03:53 PM

preparing for coronavirus

Risk Management |

Schools are tackling health preparations, trip considerations and community communications among other measures.

As the spread of novel coronavirus (nCoV), named COVID-19 as of February 11, 2020, shows no sign of abating, independent schools continue to prepare for a potential threat, ease fears and help steer conversations to productive ends. In the webinar “Independent School Response to Coronavirus,” convened Thursday, February 6, 2020, by EMA, NAIS, TABS, SAIS and NBOA, experts addressed these matters and provided resources.

As a reference point, 150,000 people have been hospitalized for the common flu in the U.S. this flu season, and 8,000 have died from it, reported Hans Mundahl, director of professional development at the Enrollment Management Association. Coronavirus, in comparison, has resulted in about 1,000 deaths worldwide (as of February 11, 2020), all but two of which were in China, and is therefore a much smaller threat in the U.S. Uncertainty about behavior of the virus and lack of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, however, make it worrisome to officials and the public.

School leaders are feeling “Goldilocks syndrome,” according to Debra Wilson, president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools, wanting to neither overprepare and unnecessarily scare the community nor underprepare and be caught off guard. What families are most looking for is reassurance, she said. “Reassure families that you are tracking this situation and you are taking action to keep their children safe.”

Advance Planning

Schools may begin by establishing a broad-ranging team of five to eight individuals to stay on top of developments and recommendations from government officials as well as school responses, advised Dr. Adrianna Bravo, medical director at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. She urged schools to think about their particular context and include on their team, for example, someone fluent in Chinese or someone adept at coordinating travel plans, in addition to staff members usually included in crisis response planning. All team members should have access to key resources in a shared document such as a spreadsheet. Bravo also advised school leaders to establish or reestablish a relationship with their local department of health, where they will find the latest information, suggested protocols and reporting standards.

Developing a roster to track who is most at risk will help schools prepare. This may include not only international students and staff but also those with health risks such as asthmatics, diabetics, the immunosuppressed and unimmunized, and those who are pregnant or under the age of 5 or over the age of 65. Contact information for all families, staff and faculty should also be readily at hand in case of emergency.

Coronavirus may impact admissions processes and large-scale events in addition to trips and travel, said Wilson. Schools should be prepared to close school if necessary and consider continuity processes.

Healthcare Procedures

Schools would do well to consider screening, triage, treatment, operations and personnel (STTOP), Bravo explained. Episcopal has begun a general screening of anyone on campus who presents with fever and respiratory symptoms, simply by asking them if they have traveled outside the country or been in contact with someone who had been in China over the past 14 days (the maximum incubation period for the virus, according to officials). Schools should make sure they have parental consent forms to conduct such screening if necessary. Bravo further suggested schools document via spreadsheet or other means who has been screened. In the event of widespread concern, the local health department will likely want to see such documentation.

Schools should also consider triage procedures that outline how the school would react if someone did test positive for nCoV, and know which local hospital will be treating potential coronavirus patients, particularly minors.

And every school would do well to educate the community on good personal hygiene such as handwashing, coughing into an elbow and not sharing drinks, which should help prevent flu infections as well. Schools might consider moving away from serving hand-held food and from self-service food distribution to assistant-served food. Everyone and especially staff who work in facilities should be updated so that they understand why changes to protocols are happening. Bravo also recommended schools consider “quasi-stockpiling” supplies like masks, gloves, eye shields and wipes, without overreacting.

In addition to logistical considerations, schools should take into account the emotional and mental health of those in the community.

Policies and Pastoral Care

In addition to logistical considerations, schools should take into account the emotional and mental health of those in the community. Schools will want to help older students talk about developments while helping younger students avoid scary news, said Myra McGovern, vice president of media at NAIS. “Few of our students have experience with public health events, so for them it may feel that the world is ending,” she said. “Reassurance is key.”

Handbooks, protocols and standard practices are all ripe for consideration. Managing communicable diseases, absentee policies, academic continuity plans and compliance surveillance are top areas for attention. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” said McGovern, underscoring how even if nCoV does not become widespread in the U.S., preparations could help schools weather another crisis in the future. 

Find much more information in the webinar, “Independent School Response to Coronavirus.” Previous coverage on provides additional context: “A Considered Response to Coronavirus” (CEO Notebook) and “Coronavirus Triggers China Travel Advisory” (Regulatory Update).



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