Officials say Minnesota schools need to make plans for a COVID-19 outbreak

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A "Do Not Enter" sign is seen taped to a door at Bothell High School.
A "Do Not Enter" sign is seen taped to a door at Bothell High School on Thursday in Bothell, Wash. School district officials decided to close the school for disinfecting after a family member of a school staffer was quarantined for possible coronavirus.
David Ryder | Getty Images

Updated: 5:30 p.m. Friday

It’s time for Minnesota schools to begin planning for a COVID-19 outbreak. That’s the message from Kris Ehresmann, director for infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health.

"Something that has seemed remote and kind of focused in the health care setting — with the increase in transmission globally … we really need to make sure that people are aware that this virus could now impact their daily lives," Ehresmann said.

Ehresmann and other officials at the Minnesota Department of Health have begun reaching out to schools and businesses to make sure they have plans in place if, for example, it becomes necessary to temporarily close schools.

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"We want you to start thinking about this both so that you're aware that this may impact how you do your work … or it may impact some of the institutions in your life, including something as basic as schools," Ehresmann said.

Ehresmann is careful to point out that a possible outbreak is not an immediate concern because no cases have yet been identified in Minnesota. So far, Minnesota has seen four suspected cases, which all tested negative.

Ehresmann said there might be other options to handle a COVID-19 outbreak, short of canceling classes. Nonetheless, she said school officials need to have a plan.

Cyndy Hiltz, director of nursing in the Anoka-Hennepin district, knows all about planning. She's been working in school health for over two decades and has dealt with preparation for H1N1 and swine flu, not to mention whooping cough, measles and influenza.

Her current work involves a lot of behind-the-scenes planning and communicating with school and health officials. She’s also been helping families in her district sort fact from fiction.

"I had a parent call me yesterday and say, ‘Should I be sending my child to school anymore?’ And I said, 'Well, why would you not send your child to school?' And they said, 'Well, they might be exposed to coronavirus.' And I said, 'Well, but these are the facts right now. And that being likely right now is not true,'" Hiltz said.

Hiltz starts her morning these days by reviewing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, and continues to check it throughout the day. She said schools are part of the public health system and they do have plans in place to handle outbreaks. It’s just a matter of making sure their plans are up to date.

"Back when we had the last outbreak … probably H1N1 — we didn't at that point have the ability to text our parents and tell them what's going on right now. So, you need to take out these plans you had in place that were good six or seven years ago and look at what has changed and what do we need to tweak and do," Hiltz said.

Anoka-Hennepin’s plans for an outbreak cover everything from educating students on hand-washing to remote learning.

Keeping up with learning from home is something many Minnesota schools have experience with. Last year many districts canceled a week or more of classes during bouts of severe winter weather.

Jason Berg, interim superintendent of Farmington Area Public Schools, said his district has been experimenting with so-called “digital days” for several years. But he said districts need to think about what it would mean to shut down for longer than just a few days.

"I think as a state we're much more uniquely positioned because of some of those cold weather days and I would believe … that a lot of districts have plans for that, short term, and what would it look like to extend that out?” Berg said.

He also noted that districts need to think about the other unintended ripple effects that school closures might have on a community.

“Start to plan those things,” Berg said. “Start to be mindful of what are the other services that our schools provide students and families, and how might those services continue if we don't bring people in the building?"

Beyond making plans for feeding and teaching kids outside of school buildings, Hiltz likes to remind everyone that preventing the spread of illness often comes down to very basic, tried-and-true methods.

"I can repeat this in my sleep: Cover your cough, stay home when you're ill, wash your hands, those kinds of things. But people get tired of hearing that. But that's still what we need to be doing right now. And it's probably going to be the thing that will protect us from this disease also," Hiltz said.

In addition to talking about hand-washing, Hiltz likes to remind families and students in her district that warnings about the spread of COVID-19 are meant to help everyone prepare — not panic.

"Put things in perspective,” she said. “Yes, we want to be safe. What are the real facts, what are the experts really telling us to do?”

On Thursday, Republican lawmakers in the Minnesota Senate said they will fast-track a bill that would set aside $5 million for the MDH to prepare for potential coronavirus cases in the state. The bill is slated to get a hearing next week.

MPR News reporters Peter Cox and Brian Bakst contributed to this story.

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