The Oregon Department of Education sent out a memo Thursday to school districts in preparation for a possible outbreak of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus, which may affect schools. The memo includes precautionary health information for school officials to “support the health and wellbeing of students, staff, and communities.”
According to the Oregon Health Authority, there have been zero confirmed cases in Oregon as of Feb. 26, but a number of people in Oregon are being monitored for the disease. ODE said that the immediate risk of COVID-19 to the American public is believed to be low.
ODE said that common practices such as washing hands thoroughly and covering sneezes are effective ways of preventing the disease from spreading.
“The kinds of activities that you need to do to prevent the spread of the coronavirus [are] the same kinds of activities that our schools are well-practiced at in terms of spreading the common cold or the flu,” Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said.
“We always refer back to the public health authority, but that’s the common practice to stop the spread of flu, which is really a bigger issue in Oregon.”
At the same time, state education officials aimed to prepare schools for the virus’s possible arrival. They want school officials to be mindful of possible bullying or insensitive behavior, possibly in connection with the illness’s origins in China.
ODE said that if a student ends up having a confirmed case of COVID-19, schools should work with their local health department to best inform the community of potential exposure in a way that doesn’t breach confidentiality or result in stigma or discrimination. ODE said that school officials should be mindful of bullying or harassment related to race or ethnicity.
“We all hold a responsibility to ensure that our students come to a school that’s welcoming and inclusive for everyone, and we want to prevent any kind of bullying or harassment that students might face based on an actual or perceived race or national origin — in this case, related to a disease outbreak,” Gill said.
According to Gill, school districts have policies and guidelines to follow in order to prevent and respond to bullying and harassment.
Lillian Govus with Salem-Keizer Public Schools said that while she hasn’t heard any reports of coronavirus-related discrimination from students, the district is working with its equity office on efforts to make sure the pandemic response plan doesn’t increase the likelihood of discrimination. On her end, it appears that students are level-headed.
“We haven’t had any major incidents, but I did hear about a situation about a Facebook moms’ group that was concerned about students from China,” said Govus.
“Right now our worst offenders that I’ve been made aware of are adults, not our students.”
Oregon school districts have been asked to defer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health authorities to determine whether students or staff should stay home if they suspect COVID-19.
School districts will work together with the Oregon Health Authority to determine possible school closures in the event of a severe outbreak.