As precaution, Laurel schools to close Thursday and Friday; St. Andrew’s to go to online instruction

This story has been updated.

As a precautionary measure, Laurel School District closed its schools for the rest of this week after the district learned a staff member recently had contact with a traveler from a country with widespread, ongoing transmission of coronavirus.

Laurel Superintendent Dr. Shawn Larrimore announced the closure Wednesday afternoon in an Instant Alert to families in the district.

Both the staff member and the traveler are healthy, have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, nor have either shown any symptoms associated with the virus, Dr. Larrimore said.

“Additionally, the Delaware Division of Public Health has advised us that closing our schools was an unnecessary precaution due to the unlikelihood that our staff member was exposed to — or contracted — the virus,” Dr. Larrimore stated. “However, to be abundantly cautious, the Laurel School District will be closing schools and cancelling all extra-curricular activities, starting … Thursday, March 12, and will remained closed for the remainder of the week, so that there is an appropriate amount of time devoted to performing deep cleanings of each of our schools.”

He said cleaning services were contracted-out to a third party that specializes in industrial cleaning.

“We make this choice to be transparent, proactive, and fully protective of our students, staff, and community, and we hope to have your support in this decision,” he said.

Laurel schools will tentatively reopen Monday, March 16.

While Laurel was the first public school district in downstate Delaware to announce closures, many Delaware schools were taking precautions and numerous districts activated a pandemic preparedness action plan. That was before the state confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in New Castle County Wednesday late afternoon.

The Delaware Division of Public Health announced a New Castle County man over age 50 “who is associated with the University of Delaware community” was diagnosed with the first positive case of the disease in the state.

UD announced Wednesday that it was suspending classes Thursday and Friday and starting Spring Break on Saturday.

Woodbridge School District posted its preparedness chart on Facebook early Wednesday and many followed with similar plans, personalized for their district, being posted and distributed throughout the day.

The plan lays out four phases and responses for each, ranging from what to do if there is a lack of confirmed cases in the county or bordering states/counties to widespread confirmed cases within the county or the district.

Districts are in Phase Two, where there is one confirmed case in New Castle County and confirmed cases in states bordering Delaware.

That phase calls for the district to remain open, but with consideration of limiting student and staff travel in areas “that are a focus of infection as defined by the CDC Travel Health Notices,” limiting outside groups or events in school buildings (rescheduling as possible) and limiting audience attendance at district-hosted school activities and meetings (rescheduling as possible).

Per the plan, districts don’t intend to close unless there is a widespread number of confirmed cases and it has been issued by the Division of Public Health, the Department of Education and/or the governor. In that scenario, all curricular, extra-curricular and co-curricular activities would be canceled. Essential employees would remain on call.

Stacey Hofmann, a spokeswoman for Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, said the department has been working with the school districts and providing resource information online.

“We are sharing information from [Division of Public Helath] and helping to coordinate discussion between DPH and district/charter leadership,” Alison May, a spokeswoman for the DOE, said in an email.

Capital School District Superintendent Dan Shelton said at the board meeting Wednesday night that his district was working closely as a “chiefs organization,” with ongoing daily meetings to stay aware. A phone conference was held today with DPH and the state’s secretaries of education and budget and finance.

“The overall intent of the (pandemic preparedness) plan is, as additional cases are confirmed and brought closer and closer to our school district, we would take a harder stance on keeping our students safe,” he said.

Dr. Shelton said the district is aware of its student population and their needs, citing unequal access to online services and computers for remote learning.

“While that would be a wonderful way for us to engage with our community, we’re not there yet in digital convergence,” he said, mentioning the district would most likely embrace paper-and-pencil opportunities so all students would have access to the academic offerings.

Providing food for students is another concern, Dr. Shelton said. “We’re in the very early stages but it was a hot topic today that we will continue to investigate.”

The district is purchasing the recommended disinfectant and 200 spray bottles to deliver to bus contractors, so that bus drivers can spray down the buses for disinfection between each run.

While a districtwide decision wasn’t made Wednesday night at the board meeting, Dr. Shelton said that he “recommends” that travel outside of the state should be canceled for field trips, but instate travel can continue for now.

St. Andrew’s School in Middletown said Wednesday it will move to virtual instruction following the conclusion of spring break later this month in response to COVID-19, officials said.

“As I studied the spread of the COVID-19 throughout the United States and world, I thought this was important to protect students, faculty, staff and the local community by delaying the return to campus and moving the academic program into virtual instruction on March 23,” said Tad Roach, the head of school.

As St. Andrew’s is a boarding school, with students and faculty living on campus, Mr. Roach said the school is following what college campuses around the country are doing in response to the virus.

“We have a much broader student population coming from all across the country and world,” he said.

He described this as a “temporary approach” to allow time to understand the health crisis.

“It’s designed to protect the school community and the local community,” he said.

While most students are on spring break, several international students remained on campus because they were unable to fly home due to the pandemic. Those students are determining how to move forward, whether to stay in the states or return home, Mr. Roach said.

Should the coronavirus threat subside before the end of the school year, Mr. Roach said St. Andrew’s will support all students academically, wherever they are.

“At this time, the CDC is recommending that there should not be travel to China, as it’s still listed as a level-three country, which would prevent travel [for students returning to the U.S.],” he said. “We would offer virtual instruction for any student unable to come back.”

All staff will continue to work full time during the virtual sessions, he said.

“We’re working on making sure that the school is clean and well-maintained,” he said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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