Nebraska parents who wonder if coronavirus will close their kid’s school may want to look at what just happened in Washington state.

Health officials in Nebraska have been reluctant to say what specific conditions might prompt recommending a major school shutdown across the Omaha metro area or the region.

But in Washington, community spread of the disease was the decisive factor in announcements Wednesday that the Seattle, Lake Washington, Bellevue and other districts would close.

The closings came after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended extensive disease-mitigation activities in Washington’s King and Pierce Counties.

The CDC said their recommendations would be a model for other Washington counties.

Presumably, those recommendations eventually could apply here in Nebraska if the disease were to spread into the general community.

As of Thursday, Nebraska health officials had identified 11 COVID-19 cases in the state, which so far are considered to be travel-related or from close contact with someone who had the virus. Community spread of the virus, in which officials aren’t aware of the source of the infection, has not yet been reported here.

CDC recommendations for the Washington counties included:

  • Short-term dismissals for school and extracurricular activities as needed for cleaning and tracing disease contacts.
  • Extending spring break by an additional two weeks, to be made up at the end of the term.
  • Implementing social-distancing measures, such as canceling large gatherings, postponing athletic contests, limiting inter-school interactions, and considering distance and e-learning in case schools must close.
  • Regular health checks of students, staff and visitors.

The CDC said the recommendations were based on the “widespread community transmission” in Seattle and designed to mitigate the impacts of the disease.

On Thursday, the coronavirus triggered the first precautionary school closings in the metro Omaha area, including the closing of Omaha Public Schools for next week. The district is on spring break this week.

Several metro districts closed for Friday and will be on spring break next week. Officials in those districts said they would use the extra time to scrub buildings and plan for how to continue school during a shutdown via distance and e-learning.

Nebraska health officials say there’s no specific rule of thumb for when schools should close.

Too many factors are in play to pin a decision on any specific set of circumstances, they say.

In private briefings, Nebraska schools have been given some specific information, but that information couldn’t be verified with health officials.

Matt Blomstedt, Nebraska’s education commissioner, and several metro Omaha school officials said health officials have advised them of two specific scenarios that could prompt school closings.

Both scenarios, they say, involve community spread of the novel coronavirus.

In one scenario, they said, officials would consider closing schools when the disease infected 1% of the population in a region.

If the region were Douglas County, with an estimated population of 570,000, 1% would be 5,700 people.

In the second scenario, they said, closings would be considered upon confirmation of two cases in the community that could not be linked back to a specific known contact, such as an overseas traveler or cruise passenger.

The World-Herald sought clarification from the Douglas County Health Department and Nebraska Medicine on these two potential scenarios and whether those reflect current guidance.

Neither organization could provide any further information regarding the thresholds for closings.

“All we can say is there are ongoing conversations, and we will work together to make a decision,” health department spokesman Phil Rooney said. “There is no single trigger.”

“We just can’t comment on when things would close, and population percentages and such,” said Taylor Wilson, a Nebraska Medicine spokesman.

Blomstedt said he had heard both scenarios discussed.

His understanding, he said, was that the two scenarios would come into play if the disease no longer could be isolated and got into the community. At that point, he said, the purpose of school closings would be to limit contagion.

If the disease were spreading through the community, he said, the schools likely would not be the only entities closing.

In the meantime, what Nebraska has seen are what Blomstedt called “situational” closings.

For instance, schools in Fremont closed temporarily from an “abundance of caution,” he said. In that case, the schools did not have a confirmed case of a teacher or enrolled student contracting the disease. He called that a situational closure based on exposure to someone who had the disease and advice from health officials.

Blomstedt said local schools also might have to consider closing if they did have a confirmed case of a teacher or student with the disease. That’s what happened in Washington state, he said.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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