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School districts grapple with fear, facts of coronavirus

Administrators admit ‘uncharted territory’

Anna Almendrala Kaiser Health News | 2/21/2020, midnight

In one school district, families are pulling their kids out of school. In others, students show up in face masks.

Educators in one Southern California community agreed to suspend an exchange program to keep visiting Chinese students out of quarantine.

School districts across the U.S., particularly those with large Asian-American populations, have scrambled to respond to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 2,000 people and sickened tens of thousands more, almost all in China.

So far, 15 cases have been confirmed in the U.S., mostly in California, home to about one-third of the nation’s Chinese immigrants.

The districts find themselves in uncharted territory as they apply new federal travel rules to their student bodies. And, in some cases, administrators are making decisions to address parental fears - not actual disease - with no official guidance. They’re weighing whether to allow students to work from home, even if they haven’t traveled abroad recently, or let them wear face masks in class.

Balancing these requests against broader public health needs often leads to different conclusions.

“We’re just doing our best to comply” as the rules and outbreak evolve, said Jenny Owen, spokesperson for the Duarte Unified School District, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles and where about 6 percent of students identify as Asian.

Symptoms of the coronavirus disease, dubbed COVID-19, range from a mild cough or a runny nose to severe pneumonia and difficulty breathing. Scientists estimate the incubation period spans up to 14 days and are still investigating whether the illness can spread when people have no obvious symptoms.

To prevent the virus’s spread in the U.S., the federal government has issued rules for returning travelers: U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who visited the epicenter of the outbreak in China, Hubei province, in the previous 14 days must undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine at a government-run facility. Those who visited other parts of China must stay home and “self-quarantine” for two weeks.

The policies began Feb. 2, and as a result, an exchange program that brought children from China to Duarte schools has been temporarily halted to prevent the students from being quarantined, Owen said.

State public health departments are using the federal rules to draft guidelines for school districts.

The policies made a “night and day” difference in clearing up confusion, especially for families who had recently traveled from China and were wondering whether or not to send their kids to school, said Don Austin, superintendent of the nearly 12,000-student Palo Alto Unified School District in the Bay Area, where about 36 percent of students identify as Asian.

“When I first heard of the concept of self-quarantine, my first instinct was, this could be problematic if we’re alone on that and trying to create some of these policies and practices on the fly,” Austin said.

But school districts and local health departments still have to make quick decisions in cases that fall outside federal guidelines.

Federal guidance is lacking on other questions school districts are weighing.