Schools Fight Misinformation and Fear As They Prepare for Possible Coronavirus Outbreak

Educators offer resources, information to protect staff and students from illness and xenophobic attacks, as CDC recommends schools create an online option in the event of closures.

SLJ photo illustration. Source: Getty Images

This story has been updated.

Coronavirus cases and concerns are impacting children’s education around the world. Schools are closed in many countries including South Korea, Japan, Iran, and Italy, and U.S. colleges canceled study abroad programs for the semester or brought back students who were already studying in countries impacted. Before outbreaks began in the U.S., the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) requested information and guidance from the Trump administration. As more cases are reported in the U.S. now and some schools were closed in communities with outbreaks, anxiety is building across the country and some schools are being forced to not just plan but implement policies for closures. The positive cases are also creating more concern of racial profiling in schools.

As of Thursday, February 27, there had been 82,000 confirmed cases in 50 countries and about 2,800 deaths, and panic is growing about a possible global pandemic. The biggest immediate issue for educators in America is making sure that staff, students, and families have accurate information; that basic hygiene practices are followed; and that teachers look for and put a stop to profiling or bullying associated with the disease that originated in Wuhan, China.

The Anti-Defamation League is especially concerned about students being targeted. A blog post earlier this month stated, “In schools and communities in the U.S., we have seen incidents of bias, harassment, bullying, isolation, exclusion and xenophobia against Chinese people and those who are perceived as being Chinese.”

The organization said adults must not only provide accurate information but should also “explore emotions, and, most importantly, play a role in reducing stereotyping and scapegoating.” It offered these recommendations:

  • Listen to young people’s fears and questions.
  • Provide factual information.
  • Teach about stereotypes and scapegoating.
  • Support targeted students.
  • Promote a respectful and inclusive school and classroom climate.

The AFT is also concerned about scapegoating and bias and made resources available to help educate in order to assuage panic and xenophobia, as well as provide the needed information to be prepared for and protected against the coronavirus should an outbreak occur in a community. A resource page contains facts on symptoms and more, as well as a separate bulletin for educators on how to be prepared for coronavirus.

Recommendations from the AFT include: having districts review and evaluate infection control practices and HVAC systems; “excluding” children with fever or respiratory symptoms from school, which means if parents send them to school anyway, they should be isolated from the general school population until they can be picked up; working with the local health department to have a plan in case the virus hits their community; and reminding staff, students, and family about general infection control policies such as washing hands and not touching their face with unwashed hands.

To address academic needs, Nancy Messonnier, a director at the CDC, recommended districts create a procedure for online schooling (or what Messonnier called “teleschool”) if needed. But turning public schools digital isn’t always possible and further highlights the inequity of internet access.

According to the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), barriers to internet access persist—especially the kind of high-speed access required for proper and productive online teaching. In 2017, only 14 percent of kids ages three to 18 didn’t have internet access in their home, but 92 percent of those who did got online through their mobile devices and data plans.

When it comes to high-speed access, there are clear geographic, socioeconomic, and racial disparities. Children in metropolitan areas have a greater percentage of access, as do those with parents who had higher levels of education and higher incomes, the NCES report said.

Ninety-four percent of children with family incomes of $100,000 or more had access, compared with percentages ranging from 72 percent to 83 percent for those with family income levels of less than $50,000, according to NCES. The percentage was highest (93 percent) for children who have college-educated parents and lowest (73 percent) for those whose parents had not completed high school.

Then there are the racial disparities. The percentage of children with no internet access at home was higher for American Indian/Alaska Native children (37 percent) than for children of any other racial/ethnic groups. The percentages were also higher for Black (19 percent) and Hispanic (17 percent) children than for Asian and White children (both at 12 percent), and multi-racial children (9 percent), according to NCES.

Inequity becomes a larger issue when food-insecure families that rely on schools for meals are considered. Many schools also have backpack programs that send food home for families over the weekend. This support will be lost if schools shut down.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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Alison Baird

Thank you for a timely and informative article.
We do not have any Chinese students at my school, but students are afraid to come to school because of what they have seen on the news. Very good suggestions for dealing with fear.

Posted : Mar 04, 2020 02:43



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