California health leaders have released new guidance for school districts, colleges and universities on how to respond to COVID-19, including preparing for potential school closures.
"It's a question of when — not if — some California public schools will face closure because of COVID-19," said Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a state of emergency in California last week. "School districts must prepare for these scenarios so that parents and children can plan for what would happen if their local school faced closure."
The Palo Alto school district issued additional local guidance on the new coronavirus Monday evening. The precautions include canceling all school dances, including prom, all field trips and other large school events with more than 100 people.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department confirmed five new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, March 8, bringing the countywide total of confirmed cases to 37. Four new cases announced on Friday are not related to each other, according to the county. And on Monday, the county announced the first death from the coronavirus, an adult woman in her 60s without any known history of international travel or contact with a traveler or infected person, "suggesting she contracted COVID-19 in our community."
If a local public health department has confirmed two or more community transmission cases but no staff or students at a school have tested positive for COVID-19, the state Department of Public Health is recommending schools limit visitors; consider alternatives to large group events, such as assemblies; stagger recess time to limit the number of students who are together; and consider relaxing requirements for a doctor's note for students to come back to school after an illness.
Under this scenario, the state suggests not allowing anyone with symptoms of fever and/or respiratory infection or who have traveled in the last two weeks to an area identified as a level 3 travel health notice (avoiding all nonessential travel) to come to schools. Teachers and staff with any symptoms should not come to work and others should self-screen daily, including checking for fever or cough, before interacting with students, the state said. Districts should ensure sick leave policies to allow teachers and staff with symptoms to stay home.
If a single student, teacher or staff member tests positive for the new coronavirus and exposed others at school, public health officials suggest schools consult with their local public health departments to determine whether a school closure is warranted and for how long, "based on the risk level within the specific community as determined by the local public health officer." Schools should consider developing a plan for how to continue educating students, as well as to provide meal plans and medical and social services.
In this scenario, schools should remind parents, teachers and staff "of the importance of community social distancing measures while school is closed, including discouraging students or staff from gathering elsewhere," the guidance reads. Other measures include canceling group activities or events, religious services, after-school classes and athletic events.
Schools should also develop communication plans and send information to parents and staff about labor laws, paid family leave, disability insurance and unemployment insurance, the state said. (The California Employee Development Department is encouraging people who are unable to work due to exposure to COVID-19 to file a disability insurance claim.)
Before reopening a campus, school administrators should review Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to determine if additional cleaning protocols should be implemented.
In the most extreme scenario — multiple schools within a school district have a student, teacher or staff member test positive for the new coronavirus — administrators should consult with local public health officials to decide whether additional school closures are necessary.
"Closing schools is a difficult decision as it has impacts on families and employers," the guidance reads. "The state will continue to assess the situation and provide information as needed."
State education and health leaders also urged "schools to ensure students' and staffs' privacy to help prevent discrimination or unnecessary stigmatization."
The Department of Public Health issued similar guidance for colleges and universities. Additional recommendations for higher-education institutions include immediately contacting their local public health department if administrators notice "concerning clusters of respiratory disease or spikes in absenteeism," and isolation guidelines for students, teachers or staff who test positive for COVID-19.
If more than five students, faculty or staff at a college or university test positive, administrators should work with local public officials on whether to close the campus.
At Stanford University, which moved all in-person classes online starting Monday, a School of Medicine faculty member has tested positive for the new coronavirus and two undergraduate students were in self-isolation this weekend after possible exposure. On Sunday, the university announced that it was not aware of any Stanford students who have tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Public health officials continue to remind schools and the broader public of the precautions anyone should take to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, including washing hands frequently; covering sneezes or coughs; avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; staying home when sick; and seeking immediate medical care if symptoms become more severe.
Read our latest updates on local coronavirus cases here.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.