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‘It’s time to prepare’: Area school districts adapt to threat of coronavirus

A school janitor opens the door to a staff room inside Bothell High School, closed for the day on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Bothell. 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. Schools in the Spokane area are preparing for their own response to the viral threat. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

In Spokane and around the country, schools are responding to alarm bells over the growing threat of coronavirus.

They were sounded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which acknowledged Tuesday that the virus will almost certainly spread throughout the country.

For schools, that could mean widespread disruption, including partial closures and a temporary reliance on internet-based “teleschooling.”

How long that could last is anyone’s guess, but schools have already done their homework.

Nationally, the CDC has been referring to its previous guidance on how to deal with flu pandemics, in a document called “Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza United States 2017.” The document is considered a blueprint for community interventions, but it’s being updated for the coronavirus.

Earlier this week, the Washington State Department of Health conducted a webinar for about 250 superintendents. The topic was coronavirus preparations, including plans to close schools and conduct lessons remotely.

“The overall message is that if you haven’t started doing it yet, it’s time to prepare,” said Becky Doughty, health services director for Spokane Public Schools.

“It’s time to prepare, not to panic, but if you aren’t having those conversations around preparations, you need to have them now,” said Doughty, who met Wednesday with about 20 district stakeholders to discuss the virus.

Spokane schools preparation is “not at all different” from past threats, such as those drafted over viruses like H1N1 and Ebola, Doughty said. “We have been preparing for this for years.”

However, coronavirus is different: There’s no immunity and no cure.

The Spokane Regional Health District will call the shots if a coronavirus “transmission” is identified locally.

At Central Valley, spokesperson Marla Nunberg said, “We are following protocol using an adaptation of our pandemic flu plan.”

“Of course, we will follow the direction of the Department of Health and OSPI as well,” Nunberg said.

At Coeur d’Alene Public Schools, the district is following CDC guidance.

“Our school district is working with the Panhandle Health District to monitor this rapidly changing situation,” Superintendent Steven Cook said in a statement Thursday.

Bothell High School closed Thursday and Friday after a staff member who returned to work from international travel reported a family member traveling with them became sick, according to a letter to families.

The staffer’s family member was taken to the hospital and is being treated and quarantined. Meanwhile, the staffer is quarantined at home.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the family member is being tested,” the letter said.

The 2017 CDC document notes “social distancing measures” for schools, workplaces and gatherings “can reduce virus transmission by decreasing the frequency and duration of social contact among persons of all ages.”

In schools, that could involve dividing classes into smaller groups or rearranging desks so students are spaced at least 3 feet from each other. That is, if the school remains open.

Most school districts have access to broadband internet, but not necessarily the expertise in teaching classes online. Moreover, many families lack computers and high-speed internet.