School districts across Tennessee are being told to stay on top of developments involving the coronavirus and to start crafting contingency plans now.

In a spot check of the largest districts and several others from around the state, superintendents are instructing principals to prepare for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in their areas and heed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and their local health departments. 

However, few if any districts have issued specific protocols for schools to follow, such as planning for remote online classes should schools be forced to close. New York City education officials said Wednesday they are working closely with health officials and have no plans to close schools at this time. In Chicago, school officials are advising that students who have recently traveled to China not attend school for 14 days and that districts should excuse their absences. The education department also said it is not recommending that school personnel wear masks or cancel large gatherings. 

Shelby County Schools sent an internal memo to principals reassuring them that as many of their teachers, staff, and families prepare to travel during spring break, the district is working with the health department to share information about the highly contagious illness.

The Shelby County Health Department has confirmed there have been no reported cases of the novel coronavirus in Shelby County, district officials told principals in a recent memo. 

The district referred staff to its coordinated health and communication departments as well as to the health department’s  list of frequently asked questions

Earlier this week, federal health officials warned that a coronavirus outbreak was inevitable in the United States and could result in major disruptions, including closing down schools. “It’s not a question of if but rather a question of when and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said in a national media briefing

In Memphis, health officials held a press conference Wednesday to tamp down fears and encourage individuals to wash their hands, cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, and stay home if they’re sick.

The new coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads much like the flu, through sneezing or coughing. The virus may also be transmitted when a person comes into contact with an infected surface and then touches their nose, mouth, or eyes. 

While no cases have been confirmed in Tennessee, last month a Tennessee Tech University student was temporarily isolated for possible coronavirus before he tested negative. And an East Tennessee couple has been quarantined in Japan all month after the wife tested positive for coronavirus following a 13-day cruise. 

The Tennessee Department of Health hasn’t yet given specific guidance to schools, but federal health officials are warning employers to prepare for increased absences due to illness and dismissals of early childhood programs and K-12 schools.  More information about the federal guidance can be found at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus.