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Florida schools teach healthy habits in the age of coronavirus

Officials seek to reassure students, families and staff that they’re ready to deal with the growing health concern.

TAMPA — With their campuses empty Monday for the annual Strawberry Festival day off, Hillsborough County school maintenance workers took advantage of the quiet to prepare more than 200 campuses for a potential coronavirus outbreak.

They began installing hand sanitizer dispensers in school hallways, as well as inside the doors of close to 1,000 buses. District workers also stocked up on soap, put up posters reminding everyone of healthy habits like sneezing into your shirt sleeve, and created videos teaching children how to wash their hands.

“We will be teaching them in our classrooms proper hand washing and proper cleanliness, which we do all the time anyway,” said Marjorie Sandler, Gorrie Elementary School principal, as she watched the preparations.

Schools throughout the Tampa Bay region took steps both immediate and forward-looking to cope with the illness as the first two confirmed cases appeared in the area. Their goal: Providing useful information and maintaining calm as worries began to spike.

“The goal here is to make it clear to parents, staff and the public that there is no immediate cause for concern, and that we are being proactive in protecting the health and well-being of our students and staff,” Pasco County Schools spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

While working to get more sanitizer and soap into the schools, districts also created new website pages to provide regular updates on what they’re doing to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic.

That could include plans for dealing with widespread absences from school, as some other countries have faced.

JoAnne Glenn, principal of Pasco eSchool, said her team has begun looking into how the district might create an online education plan for schools to use in such an instance. She and other virtual school leaders from around the state are talking about ideas they can share to provide distance learning, if it comes to that.

Most districts have digital learning systems in place already, Glenn noted, so it would seem a logical first step would be to reframe how teachers use those to prepare and present lessons to their students in emergency situations — and that could mean much more than just a health scare.

“We see it around the country with snow days,” Glenn said. “There are some good, solid models around the country.”

But first, schools looked to keep from becoming germ breeding grounds.

In Pinellas County, teachers are being encouraged to regularly wipe down desks and “anything else kids touch,” said spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas.

Cleaning crews are “stepping up” regular flu season practices. School nurses are sharing “good hygiene” practices with students and staff, urging frequent handwashing and ensuring all classrooms have hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available.

“The district is enhancing cleaning and disinfecting measures in our schools, we are placing orders for additional hand sanitizer for all schools and work sites as well as any other materials that will be beneficial,” the Manatee County school district advised parents in a Monday morning update.

Pinellas schools also are tracking student absences and sickness trends, as directed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Should the virus spread into schools, the district is prepared to close campuses and offer online assignments to all students, Mascareñas said.

Meanwhile, district leaders in Manatee, as in most other districts, consulted with state officials and local health departments on best approaches for dealing with the virus if it spreads.

Universities had their own set of concerns, especially dealing with students traveling abroad.

Florida State University announced Monday that it had canceled spring semester courses at its center in Florence, Italy. The university is working with students in the program to get them home safely, and has asked them to self-quarantine for 14 days following their return.

The University of Florida similarly canceled its architecture study abroad program in Vicenza, Italy, in response to the spread of coronavirus in the country, according to spokesman Steve Orlando.

About 40 students are in “various stages of return” to UF, and the school will follow federal guidelines to assess and monitor their health when they arrive.

UF also recently called off study abroad programs to China and South Korea due to coronavirus. FSU further suspended travel plans for students and staff headed to China, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Italy, the countries with the largest outbreaks of the virus.

The University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida made similar travel restrictions.

Like the K-12 schools, UCF also added more hand sanitizer dispensers in high-traffic areas around campus.

Throughout all this preparation, Hillsborough County district officials said they also intend not to stoke panic beyond what already exists.

Gorrie principal Sandler, for instance, said her teachers will not be mentioning the coronavirus by name.

“We have not used that phrase at school,” she said. “We just say, to keep from getting sick and spreading germs.”

Staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report.

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