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Coronavirus 2019-nCoV & Independent Schools

Tuesday, January 28, 2020  
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By Debra P. Wilson
Updated February 26, 2020

Download a PDF version of this article here.

Many schools are watching the information about the spread of coronavirus in China and around the world, particularly with teacher and student exchanges, spring break trips, and other trips on the horizon. As with various epidemics that have come before, the coronavirus will likely continue to unfold slowly, leaving schools to continue to weigh their options as trip deadlines get closer. How should you handle these issues and which resources should you consult?

What do we know about the coronavirus?

The virus began in China’s Wuhan, Hubei Province, likely in a livestock market. It is the jump from animals to human-to-human transmission that makes viruses such as this one more dangerous. The newness of this virus among humans means that most of us have developed no antibodies to it, and the severity of symptoms and the level of contagion are harder to predict. As of this writing, the coronavirus has infected more than 81,000 people, and nearly 2,800 deaths have been reported.

At this time, the virus presents very similarly to a mild flu and appears to spread through human saliva and contact. The mortality rate of the virus varies depending on the age and health of the individual. A study released on February 26, 2020, reported that patients under the age of 9 have all survived, patients between the ages of 70-79 have an 8% mortality rate, and patients over the age of 80 have an almost 15% mortality rate. This report also stated that the overall mortality rate was roughly 2.3%.

Countries outside of China that have reported cases include the United States, Austria, Italy, Brazil, Taiwan, Australia, Macau, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, France, Canada, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, and Germany, among others. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an updated list of locations where the virus has spread. The virus is now spreading more quickly, in part because individuals may unknowingly have the virus and continue to travel, shop, and otherwise engage in activities that expose other people to the virus.

Coronaviruses are generally spread among animals, then can mutate to be transmittable between people. MERS and SARS were both such coronaviruses. At this time, there is no vaccine for this strain, 2019-nCoV, which is now being called COVID-19. Prevention steps include standard flu precautions such as washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding contact with individuals who may have the virus. Because this virus is new among humans, concern for its spread tends to be higher and governments are largely focused on trying to contain the outbreak. The CDC has consistent and updated information on its dedicated 2019 coronavirus website.

What should schools be thinking about?

Obviously, community safety is paramount with the outbreak of any previously unknown virus. Schools that have scheduled visitors from China, particularly from more heavily infected areas, will want to carefully consider the possibility of community exposure to COVID-19 as well as general community anxiety that might arise related to concerns of exposure.

The CDC has issued a Level 3 warning for travel to China and South Korea, meaning that all nonessential travel to these places should be avoided. As long as this warning is in place, schools should plan on avoiding most trips to these and any other countries that are added to the CDC list. At this point, China has cancelled most major tours leaving the country, and major airlines are allowing those who have made flight reservations to change their plans without penalty, although on different timetables. Italy, Iran, and Japan have all been given a Level 2 warning for travel. Level 2 is generally intended to warn vulnerable populations away from travel in those locations. Schools should continue to monitor how those policies may affect school trips and take advantage of favorable cancellation windows if appropriate.

In light of these travel warnings, if your school has visitors scheduled to come from China, carefully consider canceling the visit(s) or identifying steps beyond government screening to ensure the safety of the community and to keep community confidence high in the school’s decision to welcome these visitors.

If your school enrolls international students, consider that COVID-2019 may impact their ability to go home over spring break or other upcoming breaks in the academic calendar. Even if students go home, they may have issues getting back into the United States if a more general ban on travel is put into place. Given these potential issues, schools should have alternative plans for students who may have planned to return to home countries that are affected by outbreaks.

Some schools may also face challenges this admissions season, as staff plans overseas travel to interview students or schedules international students to come to campus. Schools will want to balance the likelihood of exposure to the virus with the relative ease of using technology to bridge some of the needs of the admissions process.

As your school considers its options related to community travel and visitors, we encourage you to communicate proactively with families, particularly if your school has a boarding, homestay, or international student or teacher program. Also keep lines of communication open with local health authorities if needed. Now is also a good time to revisit your school’s pandemic and crisis management plans.

What steps should schools consider taking?

Although the way your school community may react will be different depending on your potential contact with visitors or families from affected areas, as well as your school’s location relative to major urban areas, you may want to consider the following steps:

1. Brush off your pandemic plan.

Given that the CDC has recently noted that COVID-19 will be infecting more people within the United States, now is the time to brush off your pandemic plan from SARS, MERS, H1N1, and the measles events of the recent past.

In other countries, the spread of the virus has led to the closure of schools and businesses and required self-quarantines. Your school should be ready for a potential temporary closure, or for students or staff to be unable to attend school for periods of time. Online learning systems, if at all possible, should be refreshed and ready to launch as needed. Pull your administrative team together to review the plan(s) and update it as necessary, playing through scenarios of the school taking steps to create a safe learning environment, or to bring learning into a virtual environment for a period of time. Start implementing any initial steps of your plan, particularly if you have very real concerns about exposure on your campus or within your community.

If you do not have a pandemic health plan, see these resources below. They mostly address pandemic influenza, but given the nature of this virus, they are a good starting point. Do not hesitate to reach out to other schools that have more up-to-date plans and resources they could share.

2. Review your school’s potential exposure.
As this point, areas of concern tend to be the following, but this list may shift as the virus spreads:

  • Visitors coming to the school (teachers or other adults) from countries where the virus has spread
  • Students visiting these countries
  • Families that have recently visited these countries, particularly those who may have been traveling for winter break or spring break
  • Upcoming school trips to areas at risk of exposure
  • Upcoming staff trips to areas at risk of exposure
  • School families that have one or more members who travels extensively internationally for work.

3. Make a plan to manage your risks.
Once you have identified your potential exposure and areas of concern, prepare a plan for managing these risks. Steps may include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Cancelling upcoming trips or visits to areas where the virus is spreading, as more information becomes available.
  • Requiring a 14-day quarantine before students or staff may return to or visit campus after visiting areas of infection. The 14-day window is the standard most governments are using for symptoms to arise.
  • Moving relevant admissions or employment interviews to online platforms during this time.
  • Monitoring various government and media websites to determine the future travel of students and taking appropriate steps.
  • Allowing vulnerable students and staff to stay home in the event an outbreak occurs in your area and notifying them of this flexibility.
  • Requiring that families and others notify you before coming to campus if there is a concern that they may have been exposed to the virus while traveling or through family or friends who have been traveling.
  • Acquiring needed supplies and preparing processes in the event that the virus reaches your school or your area.

4. Prepare clear communications for your parents, students, and staff.

Convey steps you are taking and instill confidence that you are looking ahead, managing potential issues, and continuing to monitor the virus as more information becomes available. It may help to share some relevant links for the community’s consideration. The sample letter at the end of this article (recently sent by a California school) may be a useful starting point. When preparing the initial communication, review for the following elements:

  • The health of the community as the school's top priority
  • The situation as you understand it
  • Any potential risks or challenges ahead (e.g., trips, visitors, potential exposure through family members)
  • Specific requests or steps you are asking of community members at this time
  • Steps the school will be taking
  • Key school contact person for any questions or concerns
  • Reiteration of the importance of the school community

5. Set a timeline for when to make key decisions.
This is particularly important for school trips and visits planned for the next few months. Understand any cancellation ramifications, including using cancellation insurance and fees or penalties from airlines, hotels, and tours in the event that you make changes as travel dates get closer.

6. Be ready to implement prevention measures.

Be ready to implement prevention measures in the event that the virus spreads to your community or your school. At this point, most of the guidance in this area is similar to that of managing an influenza pandemic (as opposed to the regular flu season). The CDC pandemic planning document has one of the more comprehensive guidance publications on this topic. Once more information or guidance becomes available, we will update this publication.

7. Have regular meetings with the team coordinating this work.
This will be important particularly as news of the virus is updated.

8. Provide ongoing communication as necessary to the school community.
Do not assume that they know you are aware of the upcoming challenges.

9. Remain calm and use this outbreak as an opportunity to improve your school’s overall preparedness.
While this virus is spreading quickly, it has not spread as extensively to the United States at this time.


Staying up to date on the spread of the virus

We encourage you to track this virus as it continues to spread and as medical professionals take steps to both contain and treat it. Schools that will be weighing future school travel or considering their options about hosting visitors from China and other countries with an outbreak can check the following sites:


This information is provided for general information purposes only. Schools should consult with their own legal counsel and risk advisors when facing specific issues.


Sample Letter from a School to its Community

The health and safety of your children are always our highest priorities. For this reason, we are monitoring the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website for the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus. This is a rapidly evolving situation and we will follow the latest CDC updates for guidance on the most effective and sensible prevention measures.

As of this writing, the CDC has issued a Level 3 Warning, advising against all non-essential travel to China. The virus may have been more widespread in China than has been reported, possibly putting our families who recently traveled at greater risk than was first assumed. The virus has a reported 14-day incubation period. Out of an abundance of caution, we are asking families who returned from China as recently as last week (January 20-26), or those who have been exposed to someone who has, to consider self-imposing a 14-day quarantine from your date of return or date of contact with another traveler.

If you decide to take this action, please contact your child’s teacher. Students’ grades will not be impacted during their absence and our teachers will do all they can to make sure work and materials are either sent electronically or FedEx/UPS. 

If you would like to discuss your family’s circumstances or have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Thank you in advance for your understanding and patience as we work together for the health and safety of all our students. I look forward to staying in touch on this matter.


Download a PDF version of this article here.

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