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FAQs: COVID-19 & K-12 Schools

Last Update: March 12, 2020

This interim guidance is subject to change based on emerging information. If you would like to learn more, please check the NYSDOH's 2019 Novel (New) Coronavirus webpage, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) Coronavirus Disease 2019 webpage, and the CDC's Frequently Asked Questions and Answers webpage for updates.

 
What is COVID-19 or Coronavirus?

There are several known coronaviruses that infect people and usually only cause mild illness, like the common cold. The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is part of this family of viruses. It is being called a “novel” (new) coronavirus because it is a new coronavirus that was not known before this outbreak.

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. In fact, most confirmed cases of COVID-19 have occurred in adults.

 
What is the role of schools in responding to COVID-19?

It is important, especially as an educational institution, that our reaction to and preparation for COVID-19 be informed, logical, and proportionate to the risk. Schools, working together with local health departments, have an important role in slowing the spread of diseases to help ensure students have safe and healthy learning environments.

To prepare for possible community transmission of COVID-19, the most important thing for schools to do now is plan and prepare. As the global outbreak evolves, schools want to be ready if COVID-19 does appear in their communities.

Schools are not expected to screen students or staff to identify cases of COVID-19. The majority of respiratory illnesses are not COVID-19. If a community (or more specifically, a school) has cases of COVID-19, local health officials will help identify those individuals and follow up on next steps.

 
What is the role of parents and caregivers in responding to COVID-19?

It is essential that students stay home when they are sick. Frequently reported signs and symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, muscle pain or fatigue, and shortness of breath at illness onset. Sore throat has also been reported in some patients in the early stages. Children who are getting ill may exhibit different behavior than usual, such as eating less or being irritable.

School districts in New York State are required to isolate and send home any person who presents flu-like symptoms (see FAQ below).

If you suspect your child is sick, it is essential that he/she/they not attend school or go anywhere else—such as childcare centers, the mall, or sporting events—where other people would be exposed.

Parents and caregivers should also teach their children these everyday measures that help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases:

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice). Be sure to set a good example by doing this yourself.
  • Use hand sanitizer appropriately. Gels, rubs and hand wipes all work well, as long as they contain at least 60% alcohol.  Hand wipes must be disposed of properly.  Always read and follow label instructions when using hand sanitizer.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with tissues or by coughing into the inside of the elbow. Be sure to set a good example by doing this yourself.
 
Are there any new procedures in place if an individual presents with flu-like symptoms?

As of the evening of March 9, 2020, the New York State Department of Health and New York State Education Department issued guidance that requires schools to separate staff and students who present flu-like symptoms at school. Students and staff who appear to have a flu-like illness when they come to school—or who become ill during the school day— should be isolated in a room separate from other people if possible, or kept a minimum of 6 feet away from others while wearing a surgical mask until they can be sent home in accordance with district procedures. 

People may experience some or all of the following flu-like symptoms are:

  • fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • cough
  • fatigue (tiredness)
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches
  • headaches

Coronavirus, Flu, Cold, or Allergies? All four illnesses can share similar symptoms, but there are signs that can tell you which one you may actually have. For example, the common cold rarely produces a fever, unlike the flu and the coronavirus. Conversely, sneezing is not a symptom of the flu and coronavirus like it is for the cold and allergies.

Symptoms Coronavirus (symptoms range from mild to severe) Flu (abrupt onset of symptoms) Cold (gradual onset of symptoms) Airborne Allergies
Fever Common Common Rare No
Fatigue Sometimes Common Sometimes Sometimes
Cough Common (usually dry) Common (usually dry) Mild Sometimes
Sneezing No No Common Common
Aches and Pains Sometimes Common Common No
Runny or Stuffy Nose Rare Sometimes Common Sometimes
Sore Throat Sometimes Sometimes Common Sometimes
Diarrhea Rare Sometimes for children No  
Headaches Sometimes Common Rare  
Shortness of Breath Sometimes No No  
David Raynor  Source: World Health Organization, Center for Disease Control and Afrin

If you are a staff member or student who becomes ill during the day, go to the nurse, and the nurse will care for you in accordance with these new procedures. If you notice someone who is ill, communicate confidentially with the person and appropriate school personnel (nurse, administration) to support the person who is exhibiting symptoms. While any child or adult is waiting, all personnel should continue to respect the privacy of the individual and engage with them in a calm and respectful manner. 

Remember, schools are not expected to screen students or staff to identify cases of COVID-19. If a patient who tests positive for COVID-19 is currently attending or working in a school, state and local health officials will help identify those individuals and will follow up with the school on next steps for those who may have had close or proximate contact with that person while they were able to spread COVID-19.

 
Does the ICSD recommend that people wear masks?

Based on guidance from local, state and federal health authorities, the ICSD recommends that the only people who should wear surgical masks are those who: 

  • are currently displaying flu-like symptoms and cannot be isolated (and are waiting to go home); and
  • have, under the care of a medical provider, been advised to do so, given a pre-existing condition.

There are national concerns regarding surgical mask shortages for those who need them. Please do not wear a mask unless you are ill or have a pre-existing condition.

Surgical masks are used as a physical barrier to protect the user from hazards, such as splashes of large droplets of blood or body fluids.

Surgical masks also protect other people against infection from the person wearing the surgical mask. Such masks trap large particles of body fluids that may contain bacteria or viruses expelled by the wearer.

  
How do I talk to my child(ren) about COVID-19?

Remember to first listen to what they’ve heard and how they’re feeling, and then correct potential misinformation (refer to the Centers for Disease Control, NYS Department of Health, and/or Tompkins County Health Department for accurate and up-to-date information). You can also review preventative measures such as those listed above.

Families may also appreciate visual resources, like this child-friendly comic from National Public Radio: https://n.pr/2uKYUl6.

 
What is the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) doing to prepare for COVID-19?

We are planning and preparing, as per guidance from federal, state, and local authorities. Specifically, the ICSD is:

  • reviewing, revising, and implementing our Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs);
  • staying in close communication with the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) and other educational institutions;
  • monitoring and planning for student and staff absences;
  • continuing our current procedures for students and staff who are sick at school (schools are not expected to screen students or staff to identify cases of COVID-19);
  • continuing our cleaning protocols, and reminding staff of these protocols;
  • encouraging students and staff to wash their hands and to utilize hand sanitizer when unable to wash their hands; and
  • working to communicate often and through the various channels available to the district. Please reach out to us via email (icsdcommunications@icsd.k12.ny.us, phone (607-274-2101), or Let’s Talk! with any additional questions.
The ICSD is also committed to fighting bias in the midst of this. Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger towards ordinary people, instead of the disease that is causing the problem. We can fight stigma and help prevent others from being hurt by providing social support and communicating the fact that being Chinese or Asian American does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19. Viruses cannot target people from specific populations, ethnicities, or racial backgrounds.

There are a number of resources available that address the what and how of fighting racism and xenophobia in response to COVID-19, including the following from Teaching Tolerance and ChangeLab:

 
Is the ICSD canceling certain events held in ICSD facilities?

Yes. Beginning today, March 12, 2020, we are canceling all non-scholastic events until at least April 17, 2020.
This includes any large indoor event (ICSD or otherwise), and non-ICSD events/meetings held on our campuses.

All school-sponsored events listed in the table below will continue until further notice.

Continuing
  • ICSD-sponsored classes (including zero through 9th periods)
  • ICSD-sponsored after school sports (including travel games)
  • ICSD-sponsored outdoor sporting events
  • ICSD-sponsored after school clubs
  • ICSD-sponsored after school rehearsals
  • ICSD-sponsored Extended Day programming
  • ICSD-sponsored breakfast and lunch in school cafeterias
  • OCFS-licensed after school programs which utilize ICSD facilities
  • ICSD-sponsored staff, PLC and other school-related meetings
  • ICSD-sponsored professional development
  • Board of Education voting and committee meetings (information regarding public comment logistics will be forthcoming)
  • SAT administration
Canceled
  • Any large gathering held indoors
  • ICSD-sponsored indoor sporting events
  • ICSD-sponsored indoor fine and performing arts events
  • ANY non-ICSD-sponsored events, meetings, programs, etc.
    • PTA Enrichment, meetings, other events
    • IYB programming for students
    • Cornell and IC programming for students
    • etc.
  • Board of Education Advisory Councils, Community Conversations

Regularly scheduled classes are, at this time, not being canceled. While we understand that such cancellations are disruptive and disappointing, it is essential that we prioritize both the health and safety of our school district community as well as those visiting from elsewhere.

 
What about large gatherings of students and staff during the school day?

Breakfast and lunch will continue as normal, with handwashing and/or hand sanitizer use strongly encouraged and monitored. Staff and PLC meetings will continue as normal; again, we encourage practicing good personal hygiene. Other indoor large gatherings of students and staff are to be suspended immediately. These include assemblies, morning programs, celebrations of learning, talent shows, etc.

 
What about large gatherings of families, students, staff after or during the school day? 

Large indoor gatherings such as assemblies, morning programs, celebrations of learning, talent shows, etc. during the school day or after school are canceled.

 
What about students going on field trips or participating in other types of travel? 

At this time, the ICSD is postponing or canceling all ICSD-sponsored student field trips or travel of any kind outside of our STAC region: Tompkins, Tioga, Seneca, Chemung counties. Please cancel all registrations for previously scheduled field trips in a timely manner.

 
What about staff going to conferences or professional development?

We are strongly discouraging all domestic travel, and encourage staff to do the following: 

  • Gather information on the steps required to, and implications of, canceling or postponing (e.g. can payments to vendors be reimbursed? What are penalties or fees for cancellation? What is the timeline for cancellation? Who will need to be contacted?)
  • Consider whether alternative or contingency plans may be an option, if required (e.g. is the conference offered at another time?).
   
What are nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs)?

Nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) are actions, apart from getting vaccinated and/or taking medicine, that organizations can take to help slow the spread of illnesses. 

A number of NPIs are part of our policies and regular operating procedures, such as contacting parents to pick up ill children and keeping them at home for a recommended time period, providing hand washing and respiratory etiquette education, and limiting large gatherings.
 
Why is the ICSD implementing these measures?

We have been working in collaboration with local health authorities and experts in the field, and are grateful for their guidance.

“Public health experts tell us that there are two phases to controlling a pandemic. The first is containment; you try to limit the geographic spread of the disease through steps like quarantining and contact tracing. For COVID-19 in the United States, we are beyond the point of containment. You then shift to the second phase: mitigation. Here, the goal is to slow the spread of the disease. This accomplishes several things. It buys time to put in place strategies to help the most vulnerable (e.g., meal deliveries that allow older adults to stay at home). It buys time for seasonal change impacts, as warm weather may reduce transmission of this virus. It buys time to develop medical interventions and possibly even vaccines. And, most importantly, it distributes the cases of illness over time, preventing health care systems from being overwhelmed. This is particularly crucial to saving lives.

The best way that we can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing. Simply put, you work to minimize the number of interactions that provide the opportunity for the disease to spread. So, to the extent possible, you limit or eliminate large groups of people coming together and you try to minimize the number of people congregating in close settings.” - Martha E. Pollack (President of Cornell University)

(click to enlarge)
COVID 19 graph
 
Are additional cleaning protocols being instituted in schools?

Governor Cuomo recently indicated that the State will be providing new cleaning protocols for schools to contain any potential spread of COVID-19. In the meantime, the ICSD is reminding staff to take extra care with our current cleaning procedures, including wiping down door handles and surfaces, as well as taking stock of hand sanitizer mounted stations and desktop pumps in schools.

UPDATE: On March 4th, our district received Interim Cleaning and Disinfection Guidance for Primary and Secondary Schools for COVID-19 from the New York Department of Health. Per the guidance, schools should continue performing routine cleaning. Specific high-risk locations warrant cleaning and disinfection at least daily, including the lunchroom, health office, and high contact surfaces, such as light switches, handrails, and doorknobs or handles.

If an individual with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 was symptomatic in a school-setting, cleaning and disinfection would occur throughout the school.

The cleaning protocols have been shared with our custodial staff and will be implemented immediately. 

 
What about cleaning protocols on buses?

In accordance with the March 4th guidance mentioned above, the ICSD is cleaning frequently-touched surfaces, including those on buses. Our protocols now include wiping down handrails and other surfaces touched throughout the day, in addition to disinfecting all seats daily. We are awaiting guidance regarding permission to keep large bottles of hand sanitizer on our buses as well.

 
Besides cleaning and personal hygiene, what else are schools doing to protect against the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19?

Community organizations, including schools, have the ability to implement a range of mitigation strategies, also called Nonpharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs). NPIs are actions, apart from getting vaccinated and/or taking medicine, that organizations can take to help slow the spread of illnesses. 

A number of NPIs are part of our policies and regular operating procedures, such as contacting parents to pick up ill children and keep them home for a recommended time period, providing hand washing and respiratory etiquette education, and offering paid sick leave to staff.

  
Can schools release the names of students exhibiting symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 to local departments of health?

In an emergency, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) authorizes school officials to disclose education records, without consent (we collaborate with the Tompkins County Health Department so that families of course know that this is taking place), to appropriate parties in connection to the emergency, if knowledge of that information is necessary to protect the health and safety of the student or other individuals.

See 34 CFR Part 99.

 
What about students and families who are quarantined by the Tompkins County Health Department?

Throughout the Ithaca community, and within the ICSD, the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) has asked folks to quarantine themselves. The TCHD communicates with the ICSD regarding who these students are, and we maintain all confidentiality. Any person who is quarantined is asked to restrict their movements and travel based on their potential exposure and is monitored for symptoms for a period of 14 days. 

It is important to note the difference between quarantine and isolation. Quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of well persons who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill. Isolation is used to separate ill persons who have a communicable disease from those who are healthy. Students who are quarantined receive work and support remotely and their absences are considered “excused.” In the ICSD, we believe it is vital to maintain social support for students and families who are quarantined and will continue to do this.

 
How does the ICSD collaborate with the Tompkins County Health Department when students and families are quarantined?

During the week of March 2, the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) asked community partners, including school nurses in the Ithaca City School District, to consult its public health nurses regarding travelers from China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, and Japan. At the direction of local public health officials, a few ICSD students and their families were asked to quarantine themselves. 

Schools, working together with local health departments, have an important role in slowing the spread of diseases to create safe and healthy learning environments for students and staff. The local health department provides the district with information about students and staff impacted by quarantine restrictions, including:
  • when those students and staff have returned to, or are just entering, the U.S.; and
  • when those students and staff, if under movement restrictions, may return to school. 

With the expansion of testing for COVID-19 in New York State, health officials expect the number of cases under investigation to grow, which will likely result in more students, staff, and families being quarantined. 

It is important to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of those seeking health care and those who may be part of any contact investigation by the county health department. Again, should there be a laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 among our students and/or staff, we will work with our partners at the Tompkins County Health Department to notify our school community in accordance with New York State Public Health Law and FERPA provisions (see above).

 
Who can close schools?

The decision to close schools rests in the first instance with the local board of education or superintendent of schools, in consultation with local health authorities.

Schools will be required to follow requests of the local health department and county emergency managers, as well as any emergency declarations issued by the Governor.

The NYS Commissioner of Education also has the authority to close schools under extraordinary circumstances, in which local school officials do not take action deemed appropriate by State and/or county emergency personnel in accordance with county or State emergency preparedness plans or directives.

 
Are schools required to close if any students or staff are diagnosed with COVID-19?

As per joint guidance from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and Education Department (NYSED), when a school initially has a student or staff that tests positive, the entire school will close for 24 hours while the local department of health investigates and sets forth a plan for any further precautionary measures that the school must take to contain exposure, which may result in additional closure. During this time, the entire school building shall be disinfected in accordance with guidelines from the NYSDOH with approved cleaners. Additional closure beyond the 24 hours is a decision that will be made on a case-by-case basis by the local department of health.

 
If warranted, how will schools handle an extended closure?

The ICSD will continue to collaborate with local and state authorities, including the Tompkins County Health Department, to determine when and if a closure is necessary. We will also utilize any guidance from the New York State Education Department. In the event that we are required to engage in remote learning due to school closure, the ICSD has initial, yet comprehensive plans to support the continuity of teaching and learning, which we are developing in consultation with national/international organizations, such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). 

Unless and until schools are closed, our current ICSD attendance policy #5160 remains in effect and clearly outlines excused and unexcused absences.

 
Can immunocompromised children attend school or can they stay home?

Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been very few reports of the clinical outcomes for children with COVID-19 to date. Limited reports from China suggest that children with confirmed COVID-19 may present with mild symptoms and, though severe complications have been reported, they appear to be uncommon. However, as with other respiratory illnesses, certain populations of children may be at increased risk of severe infection, such as children with underlying health conditions.

Parents of students with serious underlying health conditions who decide to keep their children home from school will have absences excused if a note from their primary care provider or medical specialist is on file in the school health office. These health conditions include:

  • a compromised immune system
  • pre-existing heart and lung conditions
  • receiving treatment for cancer or for autoimmune diseases (e.g. juvenile idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis)
  • having an organ transplant or a bone-marrow transplant

Teachers will be directed to make materials and assignments available for these students.

 
What about feeding children during an extended closure?

On the afternoon of March 12, 2020, ICSD received approval from New York State Child Nutrition Program Administration to provide “grab-and-go” meals for children in the event of a closure. We will have two (2) pickup locations and will provide delivery for those who are in dire need. Our plans (i.e. specifics regarding menu, locations, times, communication, etc.) are ready to implement if/when we close. 

We have also communicated with local groups that support people in our region experiencing food insecurity, to involve them in the process as necessary. Our local community is collaborating well on this potential issue.
  
How would non-public schools be affected by decisions to close?

Just like public schools, private schools are subject to any declaration by the Governor and any request to close by health departments and local emergency managers.

 
How are schools handling concerns regarding international student and staff travel?

The Tompkins County Health Department is responsible for outreach and assessment of persons returning from countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19. The ICSD maintains close communication with the county health department in any instance that may involve a student or staff member returning or arriving from abroad.

With the upcoming spring break, there are a number of school-sponsored trips planned. We continue to closely monitor the travel advisories provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will consult with local and state public health authorities to support informed decision-making for school-sponsored trips.

UPDATE (March 12): At this time, the ICSD is postponing or canceling all ICSD-sponsored student field trips or travel of any kind outside of our STAC region: Tompkins, Tioga, Seneca, Chemung counties. Please cancel all registrations for previously scheduled field trips in a timely manner.

 
How are schools handling concerns regarding domestic student and staff travel?

UPDATE (March 12): At this time, the ICSD is postponing or canceling all ICSD-sponsored student field trips or travel of any kind outside of our STAC region: Tompkins, Tioga, Seneca, Chemung counties. Please cancel all registrations for previously scheduled field trips in a timely manner.

We are strongly discouraging all domestic travel, and encourage staff who have conferences or professional development planned to do the following: 

  • Gather information on the steps required to, and implications of, canceling or postponing (e.g. can payments to vendors be reimbursed? What are penalties or fees for cancellation? What is the timeline for cancellation? Who will need to be contacted?)
  • Consider whether alternative or contingency plans may be an option, if required (e.g. is the conference offered at another time?).
 
How is the ICSD planning to engage in ongoing communication with staff and families?

The Ithaca City School District will continue to update these FAQs as new information arises, and will alert the community about the updates on our social media accounts, including Twitter (@IthacaNYSchools) and Facebook (@IthacaCitySchools). Any future live stream will also be available through working links. We apologize for the re-routing folks needed to do on March 5. 

Please direct staff, students, and families concerned about COVID-19 to district communications and reliable sources, such as the New York State Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health. Please also invite them to reach out to us via email (icsdcommunications@icsd.k12.ny.us), phone (607-274-2101), or Let’s Talk! with any additional questions.

 
Sources consulted:
New York State Department of Health
New York State Department of Education
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Teaching Tolerance
ChangeLab