Answers in short supply as schools, and families, brace for coronavirus

Shifting federal guidance and a growing sense of anxiety has left schools and parents grappling with how to prepare for the coronavirus.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that only people who had been in the highest-risk countries — Italy, South Korea, China or Iran — after March 4 need to self-isolate. Previously, everyone who had traveled to the countries, regardless of the time period, had been told to quarantine.

VTDigger received half a dozen concerned emails from parents across the state reporting that students in their kids’ schools had traveled to high-risk countries, and were still in school. They asked for information, requested more enforcement of quarantines, and demanded answers. “This is not a drill, not a hoax, and people are dying,” wrote one tipster.

Concerns have grown even though no Vermonters have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

One woman described a pervading sense of helplessness after she learned that a family whose kids attend school with her grandchildren had traveled to Italy and then returned to their classrooms in the Burlington School District. The Vermont Department of Health is “monitoring them — Is that enough?” she said in an interview.

She worried about the lack of accountability. “The school board is hamstrung, they can’t make the kids not come to school,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The parents with whom I’ve talked feel totally helpless because the school district can’t do anything.”

Meanwhile, school administrators are sticking to a singular message: Keep calm, and listen to the Department of Health.

The virus, which originated in China, has continued to spread around the globe. The number of cases internationally has surpassed 100,000. As of Thursday, the U.S. had reported 163 cases in 19 states, including 14 deaths. In Vermont, tests done on eight people have come back negative. The state continues to monitor 203 people.

Infection rates for children and teenagers remain much lower than for adults. In China, where the outbreak originated, children make up just 2.4% of the total cases. But experts say that children can carry the disease without showing symptoms.

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Bob Thibault, principal of Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, said he points people to the basic guidance offered by the health department: People should wash their hands, stay home when sick, and report any travel to countries that have experienced outbreaks.

The department is also asking those who have traveled to Level 1 countries to self-quarantine, staying at home and avoiding work and public places.

“It’s being cautious … but also not trying to overreact,” Thibault said.

Thibault said he canceled a month-long student trip to China in January. It was rescheduled to Southeast Asia. But last week, the flights, which included a layover in South Korea, were canceled and the trip was called off entirely.

Stowe High School canceled a trip to China, as have other schools. Colleges have also halted their study abroad programs.

Schools have remained largely silent on the outbreak. Questions are best addressed directly by the state, said Jeff Francis, head of the Vermont Superintendents Association, rather than intermediaries “who lack both public health and emergency response authority and expertise.”

The Department of Health is regularly updating its website, and has been fielding calls and questions, and posting information from the CDC. (VTDigger is posting the Health Department’s daily update at the top left of its homepage.)

“We’re trying to put out as much as we can. Hopefully that will instill confidence,” said Ben Truman, spokesperson for the Department of Health.

But Truman added, clarity is difficult in a changing landscape.

“It’s difficult, you’ve gotten a new virus,” he said. “We’re learning more about it every day.”

Schools, too, don’t yet have a clear protocol for when to close schools or what to do if teachers get sick.

The Agency of Education would only consider closures in the case of an outbreak, Education Secretary Dan French said at a press conference Thursday. Meanwhile, his agency is developing contingency plans for a variety of scenarios, including how to protect teachers, impacts on school schedules and summer vacation, and how to continue to provide school lunches.

That guidance could be out as soon as next week, according to spokesperson Ted Fisher.

Colleges across the state are also in a holding pattern, even as they plan for the worst. University of Vermont and St. Michael’s College students are among those who are on spring break next week. Schools are preparing to move classes online, or even close, in case of an outbreak.

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The only college in the United States to cancel in-person classes because of the coronavirus is the University of Washington. The university hosts 50,000 students between three campuses around Seattle — the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

UVM notified faculty and staff to prepare methods of “remote” instruction, in case students who are traveling become sick or need to be quarantined. But these preparations should also be made in case the university may need to limit “person-to-person contact,” Provost Patricia Prelock wrote in a letter to faculty.

While there is no current plan to suspend usual university business, “the situation may change quickly,” Prelock wrote.

She recommended professors use Blackboard, a virtual learning site, to post class resources and assignments. She also advised faculty to tell students to bring important course materials with them for break in case of quarantines or travel restrictions.

University spokespeople did not return requests for comment about what conditions would require the university to move most of its instruction online, or shut down the university entirely.

Norwich University is also organizing 24-hour updates among its emergency response team to monitor coronavirus developments. Spokesperson Daphne Larkin said if any cases were confirmed among its community members it would rely on advice from the CDC and Vermont Department of Health as to whether or not it should temporarily shut down.

Norwich can’t track where students travel over spring break, Larkin said.

“If somebody is sick, they have to stay home,” Larkin said. She said the university is relying on students taking seriously the guidance that has been sent out to them if they are feeling ill or if they travel to any countries where the virus is present.

Middlebury College is attempting a stricter approach if students travel to China, Iran, South Korea, Italy or Japan. The college is requiring students who travel to these countries, or if they live with anyone who has traveled to these countries, to self-isolate themselves off Middlebury’s campus for 14 days.

Middlebury spokespeople did not respond to questions from VTDigger about how it would enforce this self-isolation policy among students.