There are still no reported cases in Maine of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But as cases have increased nationwide, state and local officials have started to prepare. Schools around the state are stepping up their hygiene and emergency practices in preparation, with some even using the situation as a learning experience.
Before snack time inside Charlie Currier's first-grade classroom at South Elementary School in Rockland, students line up behind a sink and wash their hands, one-by-one.
A self-described "germaphobe," Currier says she is prioritized instruction in hygiene — particularly at this young age. In fact, she even teaches a whole mini-lesson on it in the fall.
“At the beginning of the year, we do a whole group practice. Just teaching them that you don't just squirt the soap on your hand and wipe it off. I actually show them,you have to scrub it all over. Scrub your fingernails with warm water, soap. It should be at least 15 seconds. And we even watch a video on handwashing from YouTube.”
School administrators say many of these practices are just extensions of what teachers and schools try to do every year — particularly during flu season. But they've taken on a particular importance as cases of COVID-19 continue to grow in the United States.
South School Principal Justin Bennett says his school has also installed new hand sanitizer stations in hallways, and custodians are using extra strong disinfectants in classrooms and buses. But Bennett says he's advising families and teachers to stay calm and follow guidelines from agencies such as the CDC.
“Just more communication with parents about handwashing and not sending their kids to school with coughs and fevers and other sorts of respiratory type illnesses,” says Bennett. “And the same with staff. Just maybe out of an abundance of caution, we're saying, if and when in doubt, stay home."
The Maine Department of Education is giving similar advice to schools — and has asked them to keep parents informed to reduce any anxiety. Jonathan Shapiro, the Department’s school safety and security coordinator, says the state has also been working with schools since the fall on updating emergency protocols, and is encouraging them to collaborate with health and public safety agencies.
“Use those professionals to create a plan if you don't have one,” Shapiro says. “And to get those relationships going now. Because those are the key stakeholders you're going to be interfacing with, when and if a problem happens, right?”
One goal for schools has been to devise plans to keep classes going, even if teachers are out sick or buildings are forced to close for extended periods of time. The state's university system says it's already preparing to continue classes online. And some public high schools have already piloted online "remote school day" plans, too.
Luke Shorty is the executive director of Lee Academy, in Penobscot County, which he says is actually working around an extended closure of schools that it operates in Daegu, South Korea and Shanghai. He says the instructors and students there have been using videoconferencing and other tools to continue classes after the schools were closed due to coronavirus concerns.
“They're reading. They're writing. The whole nine yards. So I have just been very impressed with how the technology has allowed us to do that.”
But Shorty cautions that the same online approach would be more complicated in rural Maine, where many kids rely on free or reduced-price school lunches, and many families are still without internet access.
“And so that would be the largest struggling point for Lee Academy in doing that, making sure that every student would be able to have access to those educational resources. So that would be the challenge.”
At some Maine schools, the Coronavirus outbreak has actually provided a teachable moment.
“It's only about a virus. Not about the Asian people, or the Chinese people. So that is the point we want to share.”
Arvin Ma is a senior at Fryeburg Academy, in western Maine, which has about 90 international boarding students. Ma says as the news of the virus began to spread, he and other classmates began to see racist videos online and heard jokes on campus. So about two weeks ago, he and the academy's international club organized a presentation for the whole school to clear up any misinformation or fear about the virus, and to make students from affected countries feel safe and welcome.
“We have a lot of students from Asian countries,” says Shapiro. “And because of the outbreak, they cannot go home during the February break. So we encouraged people to be very nice for them.” Shapiro says that, overall, he is encouraged by the fact that schools and communities have had weeks to prepare and should be in a strong position to respond to any potential challenges in the coming weeks and months.