CLEVELAND, Ohio — As counties across Ohio teeter on the edge of the highest risk status in the state’s color coded coronavirus alert system, districts are still developing the basics of back-to-school plans — like whether schools will open at all.
But after the basic plans roll out, difficult decisions still lie ahead, including what happens if a student is diagnosed with COVID-19. While tracing the virus through classrooms and common spaces, districts also have to protect student privacy and prevent social conflict around the virus.
There are two aspects to handling this: a procedure on how to notify those affected and creating an environment in schools where the virus isn’t stigmatized.
“Some of the most important lessons that we’re going to teach our kids at this junction are less about traditional academic metrics and more about how do we respond to the collective challenge of this pandemic,” Rob McFee, president of the Northeastern Ohio School Association and a teacher at Willoughby-Eastlake School District, said.
Though there is research on how students communicate about chronic conditions, there’s not much on contagious diseases, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital psychologist Dr. Carolyn Levers-Landis said.
The way that children respond to chronic conditions is varied — some children are exceedingly transparent while others want to keep their information private. But COVID-19 does open up some opportunities for bullying, like threatening to spread germs through physical touch.
“This is an issue we’re really going to think through as a society to protect children and families,” Levers-Landis said.
Tracing the virus
The way districts will handle this is governed by federal privacy regulations for students and teachers. If a student shows COVID-19 symptoms, like fever or fatigue and goes to the school nurse, the district will likely send the student home. The student will then need to be tested.
In Cuyahoga County, the board of health would be notified of a positive case and ask the school about the student’s schedule, spokesman Kevin Brennan said. Then, while department officials work on tracing the virus and notifying those directly affected, the district will need to decide how to notify the community about the case.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if there is a case confirmed, school districts should consider shutting down for 1-2 days for sanitation, according to a document released in May 2020.
Those in “close contact” with the child or staff member with a confirmed case should quarantine for 14 days, under CDC guidance. That means being within 6 feet of the person for more than 15 minutes.
Brennan wrote in an email that the board of health is following general CDC guidelines, but each situation — including how each potential contact would be handled or who would be quarantined — would depend on the individual case.
In the spring before districts shut down, schools sent out notifications of potential cases, like in Beachwood and Solon. That allowed districts to practice notifying the community of a potential case without identifying a student or family.
Rotating schedules and online courses could prevent stigma because when a student is absent from school, it may be less noticeable.
Part of CDC guidance on how to handle reopening during COVID-19 includes addressing stigma:
“School plans should be designed to complement other community mitigation strategies to protect high risk populations and the health care system, and minimize disruption to teaching and learning and protect students and staff from social stigma and discrimination,” the guidance reads.
Ohio school reopening guidelines include a note to mitigate stigma for students who can’t wear facial coverings, but otherwise does not address the topic.
McFee said he feels preventing stigma hasn’t been a main focus of plans at districts just yet, because leaders are focusing on different parts of reopening.
It’s not only students who could be stigmatized — McFee said some school association staff members fear lack of privacy if they need accommodations teaching during the pandemic due to underlying health conditions.
Bill Stencil, Cleveland schools’ executive director of “Humanware,” or social-emotional learning practices, said part of mitigating some of those negative feelings stemming from the pandemic is creating an environment where concerns can be readily heard.
“Empathy, understanding, kindness, student, staff, or parent voice,” he said. “All of those things combined (create a space) where no one is afraid to share how they’re feeling.”
One of the work groups that is part of CMSD’s reopening plan is focused on social-emotional learning. A suggested example of a practice for the plan is having morning and afternoon check-ins with students about how they’re feeling and any concerns.
Suggested practices for reducing stigma around the coronavirus — whether for adults or children — include talking about the virus and sharing accurate information.
In the CDC’s guidelines for talking to children about the coronavirus, officials recommend not using language that would lead to stigma, like not saying that someone is “spreading” or “transmitting” the disease, assigning guilt.
“Explain that the illness has nothing to do with what someone looks like, where they are from or what language they speak and if they hear any name-calling or bullying, they should tell a trusted adult,” a post by the United Nations reads.