Coronavirus Q&A: What California Parents and Students Should Know About COVID-19

EDSource, Theresa Harrington and Patrick Hoge, March 8, 2020 (rewrite, original article shortened for this posting)

Q: What is the state reporting on the spread in California of the coronavirus known as COVID-19?

Statewide, more than 80 adults had tested positive for the virus as of Saturday. Elk Grove Unified closed all schools March 7-13 after a family was put on quarantine for the virus. Stanford University cancelled classes for the last two weeks of the winter term starting Monday after a faculty member tested positive. On Thursday, California ordered insurance companies to waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus testing – including co-pays, deductibles or co-insurance – for hospital stays, emergency department, urgent care and medical visits. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Wednesday, the same day the state saw its first death in Placer County. The victim had been a passenger on a cruise ship to Mexico and disembarked at the Port of San Francisco. The ship then continued to Hawaii and was supposed to return to San Francisco Wednesday night but was stopped at sea pending testing of passengers and crew who were showing possible symptoms of the disease.

QHave any school children in California been diagnosed with the coronavirus (known as COVID-19)?

A: So far, no California school children have been diagnosed with the virus.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “preliminary data suggest that older adults and persons with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems might be at greater risk for severe illness from this virus.” Gov. Gavin Newsom, at a press conference Wednesday, reiterated that point, seeking to allay parents’ fears by underscoring that healthy children were on the whole less vulnerable to COVID-19 than older adults. In China, some cases of children contracting the virus have been reported.

Elk Grove Unified Superintendent Christopher Hoffman announced Saturday that all schools in the district – which is the largest in Northern California – would close for the week of March 7-13 because a family was put on quarantine after testing positive for the virus.  The district said that no student or staff member, however, has tested for the virus. The 64,000 student district will declare next week as spring break in place of its regularly scheduled spring break scheduled for next month. It is the first school district in the state to announce a complete closure. See school district statement here.

On Friday, the Murietta Valley Unified School District announced that it would close Marietta Valley High School on Monday, March 9 because an employee was ill and being tested for the virus. The school will remain closed until the testing is completed and 71 students who may have come in contact with the person who was sick have been instructed to self-quarantine.

On Thursday, five Bay Area schools closed for deep cleaning: The Aspire Monarch Academy charter school in Oakland closed because a staff member was potentially exposed to coronavirus; Lowell High School in San Francisco Unified closed because a relative of a student was being treated for coronavirus; the private Presidio Hill School in San Francisco closed because an extended family member who visits the school was exposed to people who have tested positive for the virus; Black Pine Circle, a private school in West Berkeley closed because a family that recently traveled internationally could have been exposed to the virus; and Action Day Primary Plus, a private preschool in San Jose, closed its Moorpark location after learning a teacher tested positive for the virus. Earlier in the week, two private schools – the Healdsburg School in Sonoma County and Menlo School in San Mateo County – closed due to concerns about the virus. Healdsburg School has reopened, but Menlo School will remain closed through the weekend. On Friday, Feb. 28, two students in the Palo Alto Unified school district were sent home after the district got reports that one of their parents may have been exposed to the virus. But the students have not been diagnosed with the virus.

Q: As a parent, to what extent should I be concerned about the coronavirus at my child’s school?

A: Health risk from the coronavirus remains low at this time, according to the California Department of Public Health. However, the California Department of Education is urging districts to prepare for the possible spread of the virus by identifying plans and protocols for communicating with families and plan for educating students while at home if schools are closed. The decision to close a school would be made at the local level. The CDC has issued guidance for schools that includes precautions to take in communities where the virus has not been identified, as well as in communities where it has been confirmed.

Q: What are authorities telling school districts to communicate with the public? Do authorities recommend that I or my children take any precautions?

A: The California Department of Health recommends that schools and districts take “common sense precautions” that help prevent the spread of all diseases. These can also be practiced by children and their families. These include: keep children home if they are sick until a fever has been gone for at least 24 hours without the use of medicine; seek medical care immediately if symptoms, such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, become more severe; cover coughs with a sleeve or tissue; keep tissues and “no touch” trash cans close by; wash hands often and keep soap dispensers filled; clean frequently touched surfaces routinely; if desired, wear a face mask if you are coughing or sneezing. In addition, the CDC has released guidelines for creating a household plan of action related to the virus.

Q: What should I tell my child about the virus — if anything?

A: “Be honest and say there is a cold virus that is showing up in different countries,” said Yvonne Maldonado, director of Infection Control at Stanford Children’s Hospital. “It makes some people very sick, but most people — especially children — seem not to get very sick with it.” She added that so far, there are not very many cases of the virus in the U.S. “Right now,” she said, “it’s safe to carry out normal activities here.”

National Public Radio has created a comic to help parents talk to their children about the virus. And the independent national nonprofit The Child Mind Institute, which focuses on children’s mental health, has posted an article titled: “Talking to kids about the coronavirus: Kids worry more when they’re kept in the dark.”

Staff writers Larry Gordon, Diana Lambert, Michael Burke and Louis Freedberg contributed to this report.