US schools start planning for possible spread of coronavirus

A school janitor opens the door to a staff room inside Bothell High School, closed for the day, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Bothell, Wash. The suburban Seattle school was closed Thursday after a staffer's family member was placed in quarantine for showing symptoms of possibly contracting the new virus that started in China - an action health officials say is unnecessary. The school will be cleaned and disinfected while students stay home. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A school janitor opens the door to a staff room inside Bothell High School, closed for the day, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Bothell, Wash. The suburban Seattle school was closed Thursday after a staffer's family member was placed in quarantine for showing symptoms of possibly contracting the new virus that started in China - an action health officials say is unnecessary. The school will be cleaned and disinfected while students stay home. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Schools across the United States are canceling trips abroad, preparing online lessons and even rethinking “perfect attendance” awards as they brace for the possibility that the new coronavirus could begin spreading in their communities.

Districts have been rushing to update emergency plans this week after federal officials warned that the virus, which started in China, is almost certain to begin spreading in the U.S. Many are preparing for possible school closures that could stretch weeks or longer, even as they work to tamp down panic among students, parents and teachers.

President Donald Trump has sought to minimize fears but told schools this week to plan for arrival of the COVID-19 virus “just in case.” Asked if there is any plan to close U.S. schools if the virus were to spread in the U.S., Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said “every option needs to be on the table."

“There is a whole continuum of mitigation steps that one can do in the event of an epidemic, an outbreak or eventually if there were ever a pandemic situation,” Azar said at a Friday news conference. “We call these different forms of social distancing. It can be indicated under certain circumstances that it might make sense to close a school or schools or take other measures like that.”

School letters sent home from Florida to California this week sought to assure parents that, in most communities, the risk of exposure to the virus is still very low. Most suggested the same precautions used to combat the flu: Wash hands frequently, cover sneezes and coughs, and stay home if fever or other symptoms arise.

At schools, cleaning crews have been told to pay extra attention to door knobs, keyboards and other surfaces that students touch through the day. Some districts have invested in handheld disinfectant sprayers that are used in hospitals. Others are adding traditional hand sanitizers in schools and buses.

But even as they work on prevention, schools are also starting to prepare for the worst. Many are making plans to teach students online in case the virus spreads so widely that schools are forced to close. Officials are considering how they would handle large numbers of absences among students or teachers, and how to make up days that could be missed because of the virus.

At least one school temporarily closed Thursday over fears tied to the virus. Bothell High School, near Seattle, canceled classes after a staffer’s family member was placed in quarantine for showing symptoms of possibly contracting the virus. Officials said the school was being cleaned and disinfected “out of an abundance of caution.”