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With the first coronavirus death in California reported, how are schools reacting?

Sacramento Bee - 3/5/2020

Mar. 5--Hours after Placer County officials reported that a resident died of the new coronavirus, marking the first death of the illness in California, the Placer County Office of Education held its weekly meeting with local health officials to discuss what's next.

The news of the death came just hours before Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak, which has stricken dozens of people in 12 counties since last month.

Schools have been communicating with concerned parents in recent weeks. Some Northern California schools and universities canceled international trips, study abroad programs.

Placer County covers cities and schools between Roseville and Lake Tahoe. The education office is not looking at canceling public events at campuses, but schools are already discussing what the future will look like if the virus spreads.

Senior ball, junior prom and graduation are upcoming events where students, and in some cases family members, will gather in closed-off spaces for hours at a time. For now, these once-in-a-lifetime events for students are still on the calendar.

"Luckily we're not there yet, but we're looking at it," said Michelle Eklund, chief communications officer for the county's office of education. "There are a lot of factors that help make those decisions, and the safety and the health of our students and community must come first."

More than 75,000 students live in Placer County. The county serves 16 school districts, more than 20 charter schools and about 20 private schools.

School districts are taking guidance from local health officials, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The county Office of Education has been doing its part to tackle rumor control.

"We are juggling a lot," Eklund said. "I know anxiety is a little high."

Some of the county's school districts increased their cleaning protocol, including using state-recommended cleaning materials. Custodians are cleaning desks, keyboards, doorknobs and even school buses.

Like the rest of the nation, there has been discussion about what to do if schools close. Davis Joint Unified released a statement to parents Wednesday announcing the district is preparing for such scenarios, and it has the ability to implement plans for students to continue learning, but said it would depend on the duration of the absences.

About 70 percent of parents said they were concerned that the virus could spread throughout the schools, according to a Varsity Tutors poll that surveyed 500 parents across the country. Varsity Tutors, an online tutoring and test prep company, also reported about 80 percent of parents surveyed said they would likely use online education at home if schools were closed.

School officials discussed online learning, but posed the question if students truly had equitable access if it was implemented.

"Not everyone has internet at home," Eklund said. "How do you read a book and answer a question? How do you make sure that our most vulnerable students are getting the education they need? A lot more goes into distance learning than just the internet and a device."

For now, the school officials don't have to go down that path.

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