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Parents spray children with disinfectant after district employee came in contact with coronavirus

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Spring break starts next week for several universities and at least 22 local school districts, but the normally relaxing pause has education leaders worried that as thousands of students and teachers scatter across the country, some may bring back the COVID-19 illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Houston, La Porte and Dickinson ISDs told families and staff late Thursday to self-quarantine for 14 days if they travel to any of the countries listed on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel warnings list. As of Friday morning, those countries included China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. The districts said absences related to quarantines will be excused.

Other districts and schools referred to the CDC’s travel advisory and advice for preventing the virus’s spread. Channelview ISD in east Houston asked families to self-report any travel outside of the U.S. to their children’s schools.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, meanwhile, urged families to minimize foreign travel during spring break, suggesting they “staycation” instead and enjoy local attractions.

The Texas Education Agency told districts Friday that students who are looking to enroll in a Texas school district and recently traveled to one of the countries on the CDC’s list must be quarantined for 14 days before they can begin classes.

Pearland ISD Superintendent John Kelly said officials there are rethinking some school-sponsored trips and already have contacted a tour agency to try to find new places to visit for the district’s summer trip for high schoolers. Their original destination was Japan, which has reported more than 1,000 cases of coronavirus infection.

Even if the district changes its plans, Kelly said, officials cannot control where students and teachers travel during their weeklong spring vacation.

“If someone wanted to spread a disease, they’d say, ‘Hey, why not let students and staff loose for a week to go all over and come back?’ That’s basically what spring break is,” Kelly said. “So we need to be prepared for eventualities but at the same time not cause unnecessary anxiety.”

The concern comes after eight people in the Houston area were diagnosed with the virus this week. A Fort Bend County man in his 70s was the first to be diagnosed Wednesday, and four others in Harris County, including a Rice University employee, were reported infected Thursday. All five had traveled to Egypt on the same trip but did not begin showing symptoms until they returned to Texas in late February. Three more people were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Friday. Health officials said the most recent cases were also travel related.

Seventeen doctoral students, staff and faculty who had direct contact with the Rice researcher are self-quarantined away from campus.

The University of Houston announced Wednesday that six students and faculty members were self-quarantined after returning from trips to South Korea and Italy as a precautionary measure, and the UH System advised those who have traveled recently to self-report their travels to the university and to self-quarantine.

“As spring break approaches, it is important for anyone considering personal international travel especially to China, Iran, South Korea, Italy or Japan to clearly understand the implications on their return to the United States and to campus,” said Renu Khator, UH’s president and the chancellor of the UH System. “As chancellor, my No. 1 priority is to ensure that our universities remain safe and healthy.”

UH leaders also announced Friday that if the outbreak becomes “large scale” after spring break, the university will cancel in-person class and switch to online-only instruction.

Heriberto Fernández, a third-year law student at the South Texas College of Law in downtown, said he originally had planned to fly to Vancouver, Canada, for his spring break, which begins March 16. He began looking at flights in January but began hearing of COVID-19 cases in that area. By February, the number of cases had grown, and he heard of an infected plane passenger who passed through the Vancouver airport. He abandoned his plans.

“That’s when I stopped. I thought, ‘That could just be me on the plane. I could catch it,'” Fernández said. “And now it’s spiraled into what we’re seeing today. I was thinking I could go to Barton Springs, and Texas has several other things, but continued spread of virus makes it seem like good to stay home and in Houston.”

In Fort Bend ISD, Superintendent Charles Dupre said many more families in his district travel abroad to vacation and visit extended family during breaks. In a video message, he said district officials would “make every effort” to support students and staff who decide to self-quarantine for a variety of reasons, whether they have pre-existing conditions such as asthma, traveled to an affected area, are experiencing symptoms or may have been exposed.

“We are consulting with the Texas Education Agency to determine whether these absences would be counted against a student’s compulsory attendance requirement,” Dupre said. “Based on their response, we will form a district plan to address excessive absences that may occur.”

The TEA told districts in a guidance letter Friday that their attendance policies remain in effect but that officials will “work with any districts and charter schools who, in the future, are advised by their local health authorities to close schools.”

In an interview with the Texas Tribune on Friday morning, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the district had fielded 180 questions from districts about the new pneumonialike illness. The TEA said in February that 50 schools across the state had closed this flu season due to high absenteeism, but Morath said the potential absences due to students self-quarantining because of COVID-19 may prove more challenging to handle.

That is because Texas schools are funded by daily attendance numbers. Morath said if 10 percent of a district’s students self-quarantine for 14 days at a time, “how do you fund those schools?” He said officials will work to answer those questions in the coming weeks.

shelby.webb@chron.com

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