County schools preparing to respond to virus
ADDISON COUNTY — Local school officials are closely monitoring the arrival of the coronavirus in Vermont. None have plans to close schools at this point, but all say they will follow state guidelines that could result in school closures down the line.
It is unclear at this point the likelihood of a local elementary or high school closing.
Area school district leaders said this week they will follow Vermont Department of Health recommendations in deciding whether to call off trips and other events or close schools to ward off the threat posed by COVID-19, the disease spread by new form of coronavirus that has caused fatalities in more than 3% of those who have contracted it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, 938 cases have been reported in the U.S., and 4,300 people have died worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
The coronavirus challenge hit home on Tuesday when Addison Central School District announced that a Middlebury Union High School student was being tested for the virus.
“Late this evening, we learned that an MUHS student was being sent for testing for a possible coronavirus infection,” wrote Superintendent Peter Burrows. “Through consultation with the Vermont Department of Health, we were directed to monitor the situation to determine if this was a confirmed case and to continue to assess the situation. This guidance aligns with direction that superintendents from Addison, Chittenden, and Franklin Counties received today at a joint meeting on COVID-19.”
Even before that news ACSD had canceled a March 14 Model UN event at Middlebury College and three March trips, a New England Music Festival in New Hampshire and World Language visits to Montreal and New York City.
In an earlier email Burrows explained the district’s stance:
“ACSD continues to monitor the increase in COVID-19 cases. Districts throughout the state are receiving guidance directly from the Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont Agency of Education,” he wrote.
“Our Crisis Response Team is working on understanding and planning for the various circumstances that our district could face, and are focused on supporting our students and our community. This team will be working with ACSD staff to determine action steps as we receive more information, including evaluating field trips, school closure, education continuance, and other factors.”
Mount Abraham Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Reen echoed that approach in a Wednesday email, although MAUSD had not yet reported any event cancellations.
“In the event a student or staff member is suspected to have been exposed to COVID-19 MAUSD will work closely with the Vermont Agency of Education and Vermont Department of Health to take any and all necessary steps to ensure the health and well being of our students and staff,” Reen wrote. “At this time there are no plans to cancel extracurricular activities, but we are monitoring this situation very closely, and if canceling activities does seem prudent or necessary in the future we will do so.”
Addison Northwest School District Superintendent Sheila Soule wrote ANWSD is also “working closely” with state officials to determine the appropriate steps to take if the coronavirus is detected or suspected in that community.
“The first step for schools in situations of suspected COVID-19 is to report to Vermont Department of Health, where the case will be reviewed individually to assist local decision-makers and the Agency of Education with the best available public health guidance. We do not have any suspected COVID-19 exposure at this time,” Soule wrote.
On Wednesday Soule updated with a memo to staff and students that included the following:
“Upcoming out of state and international student trips from now through the end of April are canceled …
Overnight activities or trips planned locally involving overnight stays are also canceled through the end of April. Events planned after April are pending until we know more.
Upcoming school events in ANWSD such as regular sports games/practices home and away, ACS visits to VUES, Flynn Trips, School Concerts, etc. will continue as planned but could change.”
Otter Valley Unified Union School District Superintendent Jeanne Collins brought up the possibility of another measure if a case was discovered in that district.
“There is the potential to close for a deep clean, and for longer if guided by the Department of Health and the Agency of Education,” Collins said.
Asked if there was a positive case in one school, would the district close all its schools, Collins replied, “Not necessarily.”
Cancellations remain possible, she said.
“We are looking at events that are planned and end-of-the-year field trips to see if they might be cancelled going forward,” Collins said. “But at the moment, we are open for business.”
The guidelines, including school closures, offered by state health officials “include actions that persons and communities can take to help slow the spread of respiratory viruses” such as COVID-19, according to a Vermont Department of Health website that Burrows linked to in his email. It describes the criteria and tactics schools will rely upon.
The site states that “School closure and school dismissal are considered Non pharmaceutical Interventions … to help slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and to mitigate its impact.”
At this point early in the spread of COVID-19, the website states that schools should consider “preemptive closure or dismissal … to decrease the spread of infection before many students and staff get sick.”
The website also notes, “Keeping facilities open during a dismissal allows teachers to develop and deliver lessons and materials remotely to maintain continuity of teaching and learning.”
The Department of Health also advises schools it “is critical to maintain confidentiality of the (ailing) student or staff member,” and, “The length of time school should be closed or dismissed will vary depending on the severity of risk.”
The website also advises, “Students and staff who are well but are taking care of or share a home with someone with a case of COVID-19 should follow instructions from the Health Department to determine whether or not to attend school.”
The Vermont Department of Health also recommends that persons returning from China, Iran, Italy or South Korea should stay at their home and monitor their health for 14 days after returning to the U.S., while travelers from Japan should monitor their health for 14 days after returning the United States, though not necessarily stay in their home.
Formal guidance for supporting the needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to be released this week, according to the Agency of Education.
And, as Burrows said, school leaders will keep community members informed. As of Wednesday information was available at acsdvt.org and anwsd.org.
“We will continue to communicate what we learn and know as we move forward in responding to the evolving nature of COVID-19,” he wrote.
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