Donna Colello, head custodian at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland, uses an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect lockers and other “touch areas” in the school corridor on Friday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Amid a coronavirus outbreak that has forced other countries to shut down whole school systems, Maine is developing plans for distance learning, school food services and emergency management ahead of any confirmed cases.

About a dozen Mainers are currently being tested for the flu-like coronavirus, or COVID-19, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, while some 109,000 cases had been reported worldwide as of Sunday.

The spread of the virus means a record number of children around the world are not attending school, including in 14 countries – such as China, Japan and Italy – that have implemented countrywide school closures, according to the United Nations.

And while the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. so far is small, at around 500, the Maine Department of Education has been in daily briefings with the CDC and has been communicating updates and guidance to schools for possible responses.

“Our schools are working hard to communicate with families and tell people to remain calm and informed,” said Kelli Deveaux, a department spokeswoman. “They are continuing to look out for the best interests of students as well as their education and privacy rights.”

A mass school closing in Maine is unprecedented and any decisions about whether individual schools would close would be made at the local level in consultation with the CDC, she said.

Currently, school districts in southern Maine said they are taking precautions around sanitizing and cleaning schools and urging students to stay home if they are sick, though those steps don’t vary much from how districts normally respond to the flu each year.

Joseph Miller, a custodian at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland, uses a disinfectant-soaked towel to clean a chair and other areas that are frequently touched in a classroom on Friday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Nothing at this point is really different from past seasons or past flu seasons,” said Westbrook School Department Superintendent Peter Lancia. “We are like every school working through reviewing our plans for responding in the event of an emergency or outbreak.”

He said the district is looking at ways to expand online learning platforms already used by high school students in addition to encouraging preventative measures like covering coughs and having students stay home when sick.

School districts in Maine are required to have emergency management plans that spell out their response to hazards and potential hazards. The department offers guidance on what should be included in the plans and has encouraged districts to review and update their plans and aspects specific to pandemic response.

On Thursday the department hosted a one-hour webinar with superintendents and school nurses on the virus that 377 people participated in. And on Friday department officials met with superintendents at a conference of the Maine School Superintendents Association to answer their questions.

In Gorham, Superintendent Heather Perry said the school district has a pandemic component of its overall emergency management plan that outlines steps for developing a response. The district has been stockpiling cleaning supplies and face masks and sent a letter to parents informing them of coronavirus symptoms and prevention measures.

It has also started to think about what distance learning would look like and how the district would ensure students who experience food insecurity would still be able to access the meals they normally get at school in the event of a closure.

Students in grades 6 through 12 are currently equipped with laptops and most students have access to the internet at home, so online learning would not be a huge burden, Perry said.

If they consolidated laptops and devices for elementary school students, it would be possible for students in grades 4 through 12 to all be equipped for home learning, and the district is working through questions of how it could provide at-home learning for younger students. Hot spots could be made available for families without internet access.

Food insecurity is also a concern, Perry said.

“We’ve had initial conversations about what that could look like,” she said. “There are some things we could do. It wouldn’t be full-fledged food service like when we have school, but our kitchens could create bag lunches and something could be distributed through a local food pantry or other places. We are talking about those things but there are no actual plans yet.”

In Portland, Superintendent Xavier Botana said the school district is also in the process of coming up with plans for what distance learning could look like. A letter to parents last month shared symptoms of the coronavirus – fever, cough and shortness of breath – and tips for helping prevent the spread of any respiratory disease.

“We’re just getting organized,” Botana said. “We’ve communicated with the DOE about what the protocol would be for days where we would not be in school because of closures. We’ve started to grapple with the human resources implications for daily and hourly employees and how we would handle their situations. Those are things we’re just starting to get protocols around and are making sure we’re in consultation with the union and Department of Education in thinking through all those things.”

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said in an email Friday the agency has been working closely with the DOE to provide school districts with updated information on the virus and resources to help administrators inform their communities.

“It’s important to note that, while COVID-19 is a newly identified virus, the way that public health officials and school leaders respond to outbreaks is not new,” Long said.

In Gorham, Perry said the guidelines dictating the district’s response are very similar to what was used in 2009 during the outbreak of H1N1, an influenza that killed about 12,000 Americans.

“This is a great exercise to be able to go through that pandemic plan and ensure those things are in place,” Perry said. “I’m impressed with how those documents were created and feel confident the school systems, at least in our area, are pretty well prepared for the potential of what it might mean if we have to close schools down for a period of time.”

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