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Good communication fights spread of coronavirus fear, school leaders say
The coronavirus has spread concern and caution among students and parents. Good communication is the best treatment, say districts that have dealt with disease outbreaks.
“Overcommunication is still not enough communication,” said Greater Albany Public Schools Superintendent Melissa Goff. Greater Albany closed schools last fall for norovirus.
Three people in Oregon have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. One worked at Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego, and another attended a basketball game at Weston Middle School in the Athena-Weston School District.
School leaders had to decide whether to close schools and what to tell the community. With dozens more people being tested, other districts could soon face similar situations. Districts that have been there offer some lessons.
Lake Oswego School District closed Forest Hills after the case was reported Friday, Feb. 28. The school’s cleaning was completed Monday, but the district south of Portland kept it closed through Wednesday to be safe. The staff member was last in the building two weeks ago, and the district wanted to wait the disease’s maximum likely incubation period.
Superintendent Lora de la Cruz said people are scared, with lots of questions, but the district’s forthright communications have helped the community stay calm. People have supported the closure, she said.
The Oregon Health Authority did not recommend closing the school but “we appreciate their caution,” said OHA Communications Director Robb Cowie.
OHA is working on guidelines to help schools make closure decisions in consultation with local health authorities, Cowie said. He encouraged schools to share information with the public.
“We think information is the key to people protecting themselves and staying safe and healthy,” he said.
Lake Oswego has been updating families on a daily basis, including information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OHA. The Oregon Department of Education has a resource page that includes a sample letter for staff. The National School Boards Association also offers information.
All coronavirus communications go through one source so it is clear and consistent, De la Cruz said.
In-school messages have included good hygiene practices and a reminder to students about behavior expectations, trying to head off fearful students mistreating suspected carriers.
The school board’s support has been helpful, including showing up for a news conference and sharing community concerns, the superintendent said.
When school board members hear questions, they try to direct people to the right information sources and don’t try to answer them on their own, said Lake Oswego Board Chair Rob Wagner. He said the board has been careful not to insert itself in communications and to let the superintendent take the lead.
“Because of the way they have communicated, there is a lot of trust in the community that they have done a good job,” said Wagner, a Democratic state senator.
Greater Albany Public Schools faced a similar situation last year with a norovirus outbreak in the days before Thanksgiving.
“It taught us to be as proactive, preventative and communicative as possible from the very beginning,” Superintendent Goff said. Parents are asking school leaders if they will respond to coronavirus in a similar fashion.
Parents take comfort knowing that the people who work with their children every day are taking precautions, said Greater Albany Communications Administrator Andrew Tomsky.
After a high number of absences at Periwinkle Elementary School on Friday, Nov. 22, the district decided to cancel school there for the following Thanksgiving week. The district sent out a message that Sunday afternoon through all its usual channels.
The message included health advice about washing hands, not touching your face, and covering coughs and sneezes, and it reminded parents to keep children home if they showed serious symptoms.
On that Monday, the district looked at its absences and decided to cancel school for the rest of the week.
Follow-up messages included confirmation of a norovirus case, details about sanitizing work, precautions the district was taking, and school absence policies. A later message announced schools would be back open and reiterated health information.
Goff said they expected pushback from parents who were in a child care bind or who thought the district was overreacting but nearly all the community response was positive. Parents were relieved the district considered their children’s safety, Goff said.
Goff praised ODE’s support, providing timely information and useful resources.
Athena-Weston School Board member Scott Rogers, the OSBA Board secretary-treasurer, said his district appreciated the personal involvement of Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill in reacting to its coronavirus case. He praised responses from ODE and OHA, as well as support from the InterMountain Education Service District.
InterMountain has offered communications help for the regional districts, working on cohesive outreach strategies and coordinating messages.
Coronavirus turning up in the small community northeast of Pendleton surprised Rogers. He said the school board is working on its longer-term strategy, including how to handle upcoming community events and the best way to communicate decisions.
Coronavirus cases could present some of the same logistical issues as norovirus outbreaks.
The Sweet Home School District saw its attendance drop roughly 10 percentage points in the month after a norovirus case was reported in early December, according to Superintendent Tom Yahraes. It wasn’t clear how much of that was increased illness and how much was parent caution.
Closures reduce instructional hours, but schools can apply to ODE for a state requirement waiver if they don’t have extra time built into their calendars.
Districts will need to factor in expenses such as protective equipment for custodians, financial incentives for cleaning teams, additional cleaning time and supplies, and possibly hiring outside help.
Greater Albany Assistant Superintendent Lisa Harlan said staffing schools could also be a problem, including custodians for the extra cleaning.
When staff members become sick, it will be harder to find substitutes because some will be ill and others will be unwilling to work where there have been cases.
“You will run out of adults more quickly than you will run out of kids,” Harlan said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA