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What’s the plan for Utah schools, colleges in case of a coronavirus outbreak?

There are no known cases in Utah, but ‘this is not to say there won’t be in the future,’ says guidance to schools from the Utah State Board of Education

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A school janitor opens the door to a staff room inside Bothell High School, closed for the day, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Bothell, Wash. The suburban Seattle school was closed Thursday after a staffer’s family member was placed in quarantine for showing symptoms of possibly contracting the new virus that started in China - an action health officials say is unnecessary. The school will be cleaned and disinfected while students stay home.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — As the novel coronavirus has spread to every continent except Antartica, colleges and K-12 schools in Utah are monitoring local health reports and reviewing plans for what they would do if it becomes necessary to close school to stem the spread of virus.

No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Utah, but educators are preparing contingencies just in case.

Colleges with study abroad programs are carefully monitoring events, particularly those with students in countries that have been particularly hard hit by the spread of the virus.

There are 34 students and four faculty members from Southern Utah University in Italy taking part in the university’s Jumpstart program.

“We have been carefully monitoring the situation in Italy and have already made adjustments in the students’ itinerary,” said SUU spokesman David Bishop.

Bishop said the World Health Organization reports that the outbreak is mostly limited to two specific areas in Italy, and the SUU students are in an area where there have been no reported cases of the virus.

According to the WHO’s latest Situation Report, Italy has 400 cases of COVID-19, with 78 newly diagnosed, and 12 deaths. Eleven Italian towns are under quarantine, with the most affected regions being Lombardy and Veneto in northern Italy.

The SUU students and faculty are outside of Florence, an area where there have been no reported cases of the coronavirus, Bishop said.

The students’ and faculty members’ safety is the university’s top priority, he said.

“SUU administration continues to monitor the situation and we are in constant contact with our faculty on the ground. We will continue to monitor and follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control, the State Department and the Italian government,” Bishop said.

Worldwide, there have been more than 82,000 cases of COVID-19, and it has killed more than 2,800 people.

COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that is a close cousin to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past.

The family of viruses, some of which can infect people and animals, is named for crownlike spikes on their surfaces.

Concern has also reached the University of Utah’s Asia Campus in Incheon, South Korea. There are 1,766 COVID-19 cases in the Republic of Korea, 505 of them new, according to the latest WHO data.

Students who are from the “special care zones” of Daegu and Cheongdo or have visited the area have been asked to move into self-quarantine rooms for 14 days. The university will provide meals for all self-quarantined students, according the U.’s website.

The university is also advising against nonessential travel by faculty, staff and students to the Daegu/Cheongdo area.

The U. has also created a coronavirus working group, which continues to track the risk of the disease to its campus community.

Even though there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in Utah now, “this is not to say there won’t be in the future,” states guidance sent to Utah school district superintendents and charter school administrators earlier this month.

Utah public schools have emergency plans for a wide variety of scenarios — weather, seismic events, fire and flood, but also for mass casualty events and public health emergencies.

A Utah State Board of Education rule would allow districts or charter schools to seek waivers from state attendance requirements “pursuant to a directive from the Utah State Health Department or a local health department, that results in the closure of a school in the event of a pandemic or other public health emergency.”

In 2009, Park City School District was among more than 100 schools that closed in response response to the H1N1 flu pandemic and received an attendance waiver.

Park City School District spokeswomen Melinda Colton said the school district participates in emergency preparedness exercises held in advance of the annual Sundance Film Festival, which means the district has well-established protocols and working relationships with public health, first responders and other government agencies.

If schools were forced to close, most students have access to district-provided personal electronic devices that would enable them to participate in online learning activities if necessary.

Other low- or no-tech options, in the event schools must shutter, could include reading or listening to books, writing, math facts or handwriting practice, Colton said.

Most school districts contacted by the Deseret News said they are monitoring events, regularly reading public health advisories and meeting with local public health authorities to develop plans and refine communication strategies.

Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said all public colleges and universities are monitoring COVID-19 and potential impacts to their campus communities.

“Each institution is unique — whether they have on-campus housing or not, what their facilities’ capabilities are, what their online course structure looks like — so it makes the most sense to have them work on individual strategies” instead of taking a systemwide approach to a possible outbreak or pandemic, Heath said.

State guidance to schools from public health authorities says anyone who has symptoms and has traveled to mainland China or has been in contact with someone who was recently in mainland China should limit their exposure to other people, notify their health care provider of their symptoms and have their travel history available.

Schools that have an ill student or staff member who has traveled to China recently or has had contact with someone who has traveled to China are asked to contact the Utah Department of Health at 1-888-EPI-UTAH.

Otherwise, students and staff at schools are advised to reduce risk of illness by avoiding anyone with flu-like symptoms, washing or sanitizing hands often, and covering their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing.

Mostly, school districts report they are watching, waiting and updating their school-closure plans in case they need them.

“Our academic team also has started discussions on how learning could continue online or in other formats if schools are closed for a significant amount of time,” said Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney.