With the flu already chipping away at student attendance rates during a global coronavirus outbreak, local school administrators are taking proactive steps to provide their students a healthy atmosphere.
Chisum ISD hired additional staff to help disinfect buses and buildings. Detroit ISD is frequently scrubbing water fountains, bathrooms, door knobs and high traffic areas in addition to fogging. North Lamar and Cooper ISDs encourage students to wash their hands frequently, to cover every cough and sneeze and to clean classroom surfaces throughout the day.
If all of that sounds familiar, that’s because it is — it’s what all school districts do every year during flu season.
“Health officials are recommending that schools should take the same steps to protect against coronavirus as we take to prevent the spread of everyday illnesses like the common cold or flu,” North Lamar Superintendent Kelli Stewart said.
Although the flu hasn’t hit regional schools as hard this year — in February 2019, it shut down five districts including North Lamar, Detroit, Roxton, Bonham and Hugo, Oklahoma — it’s still challenging attendance goals. Clarksville ISD Superintendent Kermit Ward said last week the district was aiming for a 96% attendance rate, but flu-related absences have helped to knock it to 94%.
“It hasn’t been as dire or as significant as last year, but the flu still has an effect on — I’m not just going to say Clarksville, on all East Texas schools because attendance is still low pretty much across the board in Red River County,” he said.
But as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rises around the world, including in the U.S., school admins say they’ve been staying in contact with the Paris-Lamar County Health District, the Texas Department of State Health Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in addition to working with the local School Health Advisory Council. That council was scheduled to meet Thursday at Paris Regional Medical Center, Prairiland ISD Superintendent Jeff Ballard said.
In the meantime, the districts have remained vigilant in the fight against contagious diseases, the superintendents said. Among the advised proactive measures is the use of a spray that specifically kills coronaviruses.
“We have four Clorox 360 Electrostatic machines (one for each campus and one for buses and standalone buildings) and an additional four handheld, battery-powered spray machines. We are spraying in the district every day, and the Clorox product we use kills the coronavirus,” Chisum Superintendent Tommy Chalaire said.
“(Cooper ISD) routinely utilizes a state-of-the-art atomist sprayer for classrooms and school buses to ensure the deepest sanitization of every surface. The disinfectant utilized in this sprayer has been proven to specifically kill coronavirus in addition to influenza and other common viruses,” Cooper Superintendent Denicia Hohenberger said.
She added that federal, state and local health officials believe the risk of COVID-19 outbreak in this region remains low, an assessment relayed by a Paris ISD letter that states there are no confirmed cases in Lamar County as of Thursday.
The outbreak that began in China has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700 globally. China has reported 2,715 deaths among 78,064 cases on the mainland. Five deaths in Japan have been attributed to the virus. The country now has more than 900 cases, including hundreds from a quarantined cruise ship.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday called for the nationwide closure of schools until late March. France, Germany, Monaco and other countries near Italy are telling parents to keep their kids home from school if they’ve been anywhere near the growing number of zones worldwide hit by virus outbreaks. A California case that does not appear linked to overseas travel brought the total number infected in the U.S. to 60, most of them evacuated from outbreak zones.
Like the flu, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness spread from person to person. The flu is a different virus family, though, and some strains are deadlier than others. On average, the death rate from seasonal flu is about 0.1%, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. That’s far lower than what’s been calculated so far for COVID-19. But millions of people get the flu every year around the world, leading to an annual death toll in the hundreds of thousands.
COVID-19 is a cousin of the far deadlier severe acute respiratory syndrome that claimed 10% of those who fell ill during the 2003 outbreak. Fear of the disease stems from the lack of a vaccine or medicine. In a Wednesday press conference with President Donald Trump, U.S. health officials said a vaccine candidate is inching closer to first-step safety studies in people. But it could take up to a year to have a vaccine ready for widespread use. That’s longer than it took in 2009, during the H1N1 flu pandemic, because that time around, scientists only had to adjust regular flu vaccines, not start from scratch.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.