Catholic School Preparedness for the Coronavirus

March 9, 2020

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is scary for many across our communities. The fear of the unknowns and “what if” scenarios are causing a disruption in our daily lives or at least threatening to disrupt our lives.  I wanted to share my perspective on the situation as a public health school nurse at a K-8 Catholic School. 

First, what do we know about this virus?  As of this blog post date of March 9, 2020, not a lot. It is new, hence the name, Novel Coronavirus. We continue to learn more each day about transmission, diagnosis, treatment and survival. What we do know it that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that spreads from person to person and originated in Wuhan, China. The virus is spread through droplets in the air from someone who coughs or sneezes into the air and makes it way to someone else. A person can also get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. The symptoms are very similar to the flu and include cough, fever and shortness of breath (trouble breathing).  

Although scary, the most important thing I would like to get across is that for the general public, the risk of contracting the virus still remains low. Most cases that are being seen continue to be mild. The virus continues to spread across the United States. Most cases are travel related and the current greatest risk to contract the virus is through exposure from travel or from someone who has traveled to areas of outbreak.  To view the most current travel recommendations from the CDC click here.

As a school nurse of a K-8 Catholic School, my number one priority is to keep our children safe and healthy. But a large part of my job is also educating and disseminating pertinent information about the disease and its potential transmission within the school community. With appropriate knowledge sharing, we can decrease fears in our community. It is critical to partner with parent group (PTO) leaders to make sure truthful and helpful information is shared with parents and that mass panic does not ensue. It isn’t a bad idea, if you haven’t received any communication on the virus from your school, to check in with the nurse to see what is being done to educate the student and parent population. 

With COVID-19 being the number one story in the news, the children are well aware of what is going on.  Our kids seem to be quite curious and anxious about the situation so there are actions we as parents and educators can take to reduce anxiety over the situation. I recommend talking to your children about the virus using information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Do not solely rely on information from the major news outlets or from ads via social media.  Remind them that risk is low and teach them proper ways to prevent getting sick. Currently the only recommendations we have are focused on prevention. Prevention is the best way to protect students, parents and staff from contracting not just COVID-19 but all the other illness currently going around as we are still seeing a lot of flu, strep and gastrointestinal illnesses. Teaching students how to prevent diseases is a valuable tool for lifelong health promotion.  

On top of the prevention list is proper hand hygiene – washing hand with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.  At St. Luke School I have gone to each classroom and reviewed proper hand washing with all the children. We have placed reminders in all the bathrooms too. Prevention also includes covering face (nose and mouth) when sneezing and or coughing, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, staying home when sick and disinfecting areas in the home that come in contact with germs. As a school nurse, I can’t stress enough the importance of notifying the school of any symptoms or diagnoses as this is so helpful to look for patterns in disease.  Prevention does not include buying a mask and wearing it in public as this is not best practice to prevent illnesses. 

So, given the current status of COVID-19, K-8 Catholic schools should be continuing the status quo while upping their disease prevention measures. The schools are preparing to take action should there be cases in our geographic area. At this point there is no real marker of what will indicate a school closure. The situation is fluid and closures are entirely dependent on what the situation looks like at the time. 

As a public health school nurse for our Catholic School students, I have four recommendations for you:

1) Make sure you are getting your information from a reputable source.  I would recommend turning off the television and visiting the CDC website and your local health department, as they are the top authority on the virus;

2) Keep open lines of communication among administration, PTO and parents -- we have dedicated section of the newsletter and a specific email address for questions or concerns from the school community;

3) Exercise the same caution you would during a bad flu season;

4) Be knowledgeable about the situation and prepared but try not to panic;

5) Talk to your children and reinforce proper hygiene.

Elaine Poplstein BSN, RN

Elaine Poplstein is a baccalaureate prepared public health school nurse at St. Luke School in McLean, VA.  Her clinical background is in labor and delivery, mother baby and newborn nursery.  When not in the school nurse role she teaches childbirth education classes at Virginia Hospital Center.  She is new to the DMV area just moving here from St. Louis, MO last summer.  She lives in McLean, VA with her husband and two school-aged children. 

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