With coronavirus now present in Colorado, leaders of the 22,000-student Mesa County Valley District 51 aren’t letting their recent experience with a contagious stomach bug go to waste.
“The good news-bad news is we had a dry run in November,” said Superintendent Diana Sirko.
That’s when she, with health officials, decided to close all 46 schools for two days after an outbreak of norovirus, an illness that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Prior to the districtwide closure before Thanksgiving break, several schools closed individually for one or two days.
Sirko and her team have many of the same protocols from last fall in place now, including regular communication with the county health department and routine monitoring of absence rates due to illness. But the norovirus outbreak also delivered lessons about how communication, data collection, and custodial systems could be improved.
Tanya Marvin, the district’s director of nursing services, said the system for updating top district and school officials about outbreak plans has been revamped to ensure information gets to the right people even if someone at the top of the chain of command is out. She also worked with the district’s IT department to create a new set of districtwide reports showing illness and absence trends.
On the custodial front, Marvin said staff changed cleaning products early in the norovirus outbreak because they realized one main product wasn’t killing the virus. (They’ve already confirmed that the four cleaning products they now use are effective against coronaviruses.)
Also in November, the district bought an electrostatic sprayer — a machine that sprays out a bleach solution — to help disinfect schools more quickly. Previously, custodians were deep cleaning schools by hand, wiping “every desk, every railing, all the nooks and crannies of the schools,” Sirko said. The district is now considering purchasing another sprayer.
While coronavirus comes with its own set of challenges, one fortunate difference from norovirus is it doesn’t tend to come with vomiting. That was a huge problem in November when students were vomiting in the lunchline, the bathroom, and everywhere else. Since droplets of aerosolized vomit can spread up to 25 feet from the source, it wasn’t easy for students or staff to escape.
“Where can you vomit in a public school that’s not a public place?” Marvin said.
In addition to the norovirus ordeal, Marvin shepherded the district through a fever-and-cough illness similar to coronavirus. That was a type of influenza called H1N1, or swine flu, which prompted the district to close one school temporarily in 2009.
When that school reopened, Marvin set up a staging area in the cafeteria and required every student, parent, and staff member to file through for a temperature check before they entered the rest of the building.
“That morning, I sent home 20 to 30 kids who showed up to school,” she said. “They were still running that fever.”
Marvin said she’ll replicate the process for coronavirus if needed.
Heidi Dragoo, epidemiology program manager for Mesa County, said her department communicates early and often with school partners in the face of spreading illness.
“It’s never going to be public health trying to stop this on their own, or the school district by themselves. … That’s an important lesson for coronavirus.”
She said health departments have the authority to tell a school to close, but often will talk through those decisions with educators who understand the needs of their community.
“A school closure is a really big deal for a lot of reasons.” Dragoo said. “It’s a big deal for parents, it’s a big deal for staff. That’s 22,000 kids that are out of school.”
Generally, the possibility of closing schools comes into play when at least 15% or 20% of students are out sick. But district and health officials are in contact much sooner — when absences are about 10% — talking about other steps they can take, such as cancelling after-school events and communicating with parents. On a typical day, about 4.5% of students are absent because of illness.
Sirko also said school closures are never taken lightly, but that it can be the only way to keep infected and uninfected people apart, cope with large numbers of sick teachers, or deep clean a lot of schools efficiently.
She said the district has enough leeway in its calendar to absorb the school closures last fall, but any closures because of coronavirus could require schedule shifts or extra school days to make up the time.
“You try not to close schools, but safety has to be your driving force,” Sirko said. “It’s all about that tipping point where you can no longer provide a safe environment for kids.”