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Learn how to identify and manage a viral outbreak in your school with this free eBook!

You’ll learn:

  • The role of identification in the process of contact tracing
  • The new challenges of managing contagiously ill students
  • What you’ll need to improve communication within your school community
  • What you can do to minimize the impact of a viral outbreak
  • The role technology plays in keeping your students, staff, and families safe
  • The new ways school leaders should be thinking about illness in their schools”

Identifying and Managing the Spread of Viral Outbreaks in School

Of all the threats that schools face, the spread of viral infections is one that has been a persistent threat since the beginning of public education. Schools create a perfect storm of conditions for the spread of infection, and viral infections can use the school environment as a diving board to expand into the rest of the community.

Viral infections take many different forms, the most common and well known of which is seasonal influenza. In fact, seasonal influenza is so prevalent, we most frequently refer to it as “the flu.” However, there are myriad other viral infections that can wreak havoc on a school population. Most recently, we saw the return of a pandemic flu with COVID-19. But viral meningitis, mumps, measles, rubella, mononucleosis (mono), and chickenpox can also create problems for schools and communities.

These contagious infections put students, staff, and the educational process at risk. So, it makes sense for a school to be ready to quickly identify and manage the spread of an outbreak, as well as have a communication plan in place to inform all affected of the actions being taken. 

To do this, though, school administrators need to know the signs to look for when an outbreak occurs, as well as the difference between viral infections and other contagious illnesses. Preventing or minimizing an outbreak means first knowing how it spreads.

Because the impacts can be so far-reaching, preparation plans—in the forms of preventative measures, communication, and actions—must be considered and codified long before any kind of viral outbreak occurs. The right preparation can minimize the impact on your school, while being less prepared can make you a cautionary tale.

Should a viral infection make it to the halls of your school, managing it becomes paramount. Knowing where infection can come from and limiting its spread are important elements of any management plan, as well as using a wide variety of tools to gain clarity on the virus’s movement and effects on students and staff. In a worst-case scenario, your management may include calling your emergency plan into action.

None of this can be done once an outbreak has already started. Protecting students and staff as much as possible from these illnesses requires planning, collaboration, and communication. 

We’ve outlined the information that you need and the crucial steps that you should take, as well as useful tools to employ to reduce the risk of infection in your school and community populations.

What a Viral Outbreak in Your School Looks Like

Unfortunately, viral outbreaks are impossible to completely eradicate. But knowing what an outbreak might look like will give you the information that you need to identify and manage one when it occurs.

The Difference between a Viral Illness and a Bacterial One

There are, of course, several different illnesses that can seriously impact your school, and not all of them are viral. So, why concentrate on the viral outbreaks? It’s a matter of cure and control.

Bacteria—the cause of infections like strep, staph infections, several forms of food poisoning, tetanus, and even anthrax—are complex, single-celled organisms. They are incredibly hardy, being found in nearly every environment on earth and even in radioactive waste.

Many bacteria are harmless and some are even helpful. Fewer than 1% of bacteria cause disease. Importantly, however, many infections that are caused by bacteria can be managed with antibiotics. Bacteria can mutate and become antibiotic-resistant, but by and large, these medicines can help eradicate harmful bacteria or lessen their impact so the host immune system can do its job.

Viruses, on the other, can be much harder to get rid of. They are considerably smaller than bacteria and more fragile. Despite that, most viruses are disease-causing. Worse, treatment is much more difficult. Generally speaking, taking care of a virus means preparing for it before an infection. 

Antibiotics don’t work. There are a few antiviral medications, but not many. Vaccines help prevent the contraction and spread of viral infections, but vaccinations can take months or years to develop and longer for herd immunity to take hold. In the meantime, viruses that cause things like the common flu, chickenpox, and pandemic flu, like the Spanish flu and COVID-19, can shut down communities.

It’s crucial to do what you can to limit the spread of harmful bacteria. But ultimately, a viral outbreak can do much more damage to school populations and the educational process than most bacteria. That’s why it’s vital to have a plan in place to deal with viral infections.

Why Viral Illnesses Are So Concerning for Schools

Several factors make schools a wild card in the fight against viral infection. School-age children tend to catch a viral infection more readily and stay infectious longer, providing plenty of opportunities to pass the illness on to others.

Schools also tend to be close environments. Students work shoulder to shoulder in classrooms, on projects, and in labs. They are in close contact with one another, touch many of the same surfaces throughout the day, and share materials and tools.

They also work closely with teachers and staff. Whether reviewing homework or helping a student with a problem, teachers are frequently in close proximity to students. Even if office staff has less contact with children, they have plenty with one another. An infection can quickly pass from student to teacher to administration. 

Depending on grade level, many students may also not have yet grasped the importance of everyday preventive actions, like covering their mouths and noses when they sneeze or frequent hand washing. Without these habits, it’s inevitable that a viral infection will spread. 

The Progression of a Viral Illness in Your School

The close proximity of the classroom, combined with the contact frequency across a school, makes for fast progression of a viral outbreak. One student may come to school with mild symptoms or may even be asymptomatic for all or part of the day. 

A stray, uncovered cough exposes the students around this “patient 0” to the virus, infecting several others, perhaps including the instructor. Those students go on to touch common classroom tools and surfaces, like light switches or smartboard markers. 

The exposed teacher takes the virus with them to a staff meeting or the teacher’s lounge, passing it along to other instructors, who may then unknowingly share it with their own classroom. Then, any one of these newly exposed individuals will carry that virus home to their families, churches, and friends.

The Impacts of an Outbreak on Your School and Community

The impacts of this kind of spread can be severe and far-reaching. Schools can and have shut down due to viral outbreaks. Before COVID-19, the H1N1 pandemic affected 61 million people, with 32% of them being school-aged. 

This can mean several missed days for large parts of the school population. Teachers who become ill require days off, resulting in more substitutes needed and possibly a shortage of substitute teachers in your community. 

In the worst cases, your operations may become so limited and the number of healthy students able to attend school so small that you’re simply forced to shut down. Like closings caused by weather emergencies, you likely have contingencies in place for short periods of time. As many schools experienced in 2020, however, few are prepared for long-term shutdowns and distance learning.

This only begins to scratch the surface of the impacts on student families. The dynamic of each student’s home is different, and a viral outbreak can affect the entire family unit. Health, income, and the ability to maintain normal family functions can be altered by a viral illness. 

For families with children, school is the nexus for all of their lives, and a viral outbreak will have effects beyond the walls of the school building.

How to Identify an Outbreak

Bacterial and viral infections can look similar. Many times, a doctor’s visit is required to determine the source of the illness. That’s why staying in contact with community health resources and keeping an eye on your school’s population are essential steps to containing an outbreak.

Know the Signs and Symptoms

It’s tricky to spot when a virus is running through your school population without prior warning from local health officials. That’s because, depending on the virus, the symptoms might look quite different.

For instance, influenza is a respiratory illness that presents similar to a common cold with the addition of a fever. Sneezing, coughing, chills, sore throat, and body aches usually accompany a flu virus. 

A stomach virus, like norovirus, however, causes inflammation of the stomach and includes many well-known stomach ailments—vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain—along with other flu-like symptoms. 

There are, of course, other viral infections as well. While some—like conjunctivitis (pink eye)—don’t mimic flu symptoms, others do. When students begin calling in or leaving school with things like fevers and chills, you can be fairly certain that you’re facing a viral outbreak.

Monitor Attendance and Health

Once you know that an outbreak is possible in your community, monitoring attendance and health becomes a critical means of identifying the spread of the virus and putting actions in place to prevent further effects.

A crucial resource at this time is your local health officials. Keeping in contact with them will let you know exactly what to look for and how severe the outbreak might be. They can also alert you to viral illnesses in other schools in your area.

Monitoring attendance will allow you to focus on the impacts to your school. Tracking absences and reported symptoms lets you compare that information to what has been provided by state and local health departments.

Track Trends and Measures

Even if you are closely tracking attendance and school nurse visits, it can be easy to miss the tipping point from a few sick children to a full-blown outbreak. Relying on the data from other schools or on your own perception could have you missing the warning signs within your own school community until it’s too late.

You likely have emergency plans ready in the event of a major viral outbreak. Depending on the illness, its severity, and how contagious it is, the tipping point to start your emergency plans may be fluid. Again, keeping current with what’s being reported by health officials will let you make informed decisions on the right time to act.

Use Technology to Help Identify an Outbreak

It can be challenging to identify the point where an illness becomes an outbreak. This problem can be compounded without clear and accurate attendance reporting. Technology is a great help in these situations.

Automated attendance tracking ensures that your daily counts are accurate at a time when the number of students who call in sick on a daily basis is in flux. An automated system will streamline reconciliation between self-reported absences and students missing from a class roster. This also makes the follow-up with unreported absences easier.

Data is an essential element in making informed decisions about what the school can and should do, including kicking off communication plans or emergency actions. Seeing and understanding that data can be challenging without the help of technology.

Dashboards can simplify spotting trends by visually displaying data. Peaks and valleys become apparent, and key measures—like the number of students sick at a given time—can be defined and monitored.

Administrative portals can be configured to alert staff with a threshold has been passed or when a significant number of absences has been detected. This frees administrative staff from constantly monitoring the numbers but keeps you informed of growing concerns.

Ideally, administrators should look for web-based tools that provide access from anywhere. This allows you and your staff to analyze information even on nights and weekends, so you can stay ahead of any viral outbreak and be able to act quickly.

Preparing for a Viral Outbreak

As stated, a school is a perfect storm of conditions for a viral illness to take root and grow. It’s essential that you are prepared for a variety of outbreaks, from a few mild cases to pandemic situations.

Educating Teachers and Staff

Teachers and staff are on the front line for spotting and alerting to a potential viral outbreak in your school. The better educated they are, the better prepared you’ll be to address issues and minimize the effect of the illness on the population and the education process.

Workplace posters and flyers on personal actions that staff and instructors can take to minimize the spread of viral infections can be posted in offices and teacher lounges. The CDC offers many materials that outline how to avoid spreading germs and encourage staff to stay home when they display symptoms.

It’s also crucial to make sure that teachers and administrators are aware of and trained on your emergency operations plans. The plans can be broken down into related sections for training, so as not to overwhelm your team. Autumn is an excellent time to cover training regarding infectious diseases and school policies and procedures regarding illnesses and cleaning.

Promoting Prevention

When it comes to viruses, few things are as effective as preventative measures. A few simple preventions practiced consistently can all but eliminate many outbreaks and reduce others. 

Vaccinations are a front-line defense against known viral illnesses like chickenpox and measles. You should work closely with your school district and local health officials to set policies regarding vaccinations and your students and staff.

Many other common-sense and simple actions can be taken at the individual and institutional levels to prevent the spread of a virus.

Educate and encourage the entire community on the importance of handwashing, which is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Other actions include coughing or sneezing into a tissue or your hand or elbow and simply staying home when feeling unwell. 

At the institutional level, cleaning protocols should be established and enhanced during the seasonal flu season. These same increased cleaning protocols should be activated whenever an outbreak has been reported or there is an increasing concern locally of a viral illness. Commonly touched surfaces should be cleaned frequently, including light switches and bathrooms. In the case of norovirus, any instances of a student being sick in the halls or bathrooms should be cleaned up quickly, completely, and with the utmost care.

Creating a Communication Plan

A communication plan around viral outbreaks will incorporate many elements, from talking to students about actions that they can take, communications home to families, and preparation of messages ahead of time to streamline the flow of information.

The Basics of Communicating during an Outbreak

You may be tempted to reduce communication to staff and families during an outbreak until you have all the facts and a full plan ready to deploy. However, that strategy can work against you in the long run, especially if a viral infection grows despite your best efforts. 

Communicating risk clearly and completely will build trust with the public. Not doing so can increase the threat to the community and even create significant issues for families and staff.

Even when plans are fluid, communicating what you do know and what you’re doing to manage the situation goes a long way in creating rapport with the community and keeping them up to date on what actions that they can take. It’s okay to say that information isn’t concrete, while clarifying what the school is doing to reduce risk, like enhanced cleaning or health check scans.

There will be many moving parts as you try and manage a viral outbreak, so the more you can reduce strain on your administrative staff, the better and more consistent your communication can be. Plan messaging ahead as much as possible, using boilerplate messages and incorporating specifics on the items included in your established emergency plans.

What to Include in Your Communication Plan

There are several things that you’ll want to make sure to include in any communication plan regarding a viral outbreak.

  • What you know and what you don’t: Include the information and data that you have when you send messages to families or the media. Also, include what information you don’t know, such as how long the school might be doing screenings or when the emergency procedures will end.
  • What steps you are taking: Be clear about the actions that the school is undertaking to prevent the spread of the virus.
  • Point to policies: Now is the time to use school and district policies to back up your decisions. Things like sending students home for a specific time after having a fever or vomiting can reduce the likelihood of pushback from parents on these subjects.
  • How this impacts students, parents, and staff: Be concise in what the impacts to families will be, as well as how their student’s education will be affected.
  • What the next communication steps might be: Include when you anticipate sending out more information, so families and the community aren’t left guessing when they will hear from you next.

Layering Your Communication Plan

As you set out your communication plan, layer your timetable for sharing information.

  • Early stage: Alert families to a potential issue and what you’re doing to mitigate it.
  • Growing concern: Let families know what you’re doing to protect them and their children and that you’re keeping an eye on the situation.
  • Full outbreak: Should a full outbreak occur, communicate with the community often on the steps that you are taking and what your plans look like.

Managing a Viral Outbreak in Your School

When it finally happens, the best thing you can do is to execute your emergency plans and attempt to control the viral outbreak in your school.

Spotting an Outbreak

Working with your school district, community leaders, and health officials, monitor the spread of illness in the surrounding area and watch for an outbreak within your school.

Now is the time to begin your first layer of communication, to build awareness and warn the community of a potential problem. Include the signs and symptoms of the illness, and monitor the warning signs within your own school. 

Attendance monitoring and reporting become essential at this stage. Use alerts in your administrative dashboards to tell you when you should start key emergency plans based on data.

Managing the Outbreak

Management requires staying on top of risks and using your data wisely.

Using Technology for Screening and Access

Technology can be your best friend when you’re managing a viral outbreak. A quality administrative system will allow you to check up on information like vaccine tracking in the student population and symptom tracking from the school office or even away from campus.

Technology can also help with health screenings as students and staff enter the building. Temperature checks can be done at entry points, and health systems can record information like doctor releases.

It’s also critical to keep track of visitors, who can bring the virus onto school grounds. A visitor management system can collect information from visitors in case contact tracing is needed later on. You can also use this system for health and symptom questionnaires before allowing outsiders into the building.

Contact Tracing

Contact tracing can help with quarantining and communication plans by identifying those who were in contact with known infected individuals. Technology can facilitate contact tracing activities, and many contact tracing applications are available for free. This is an additional area where automated attendance can help, especially when used in conjunction with student location apps. Your attendance system can show which students were in school and what classes they attended, while location apps can show their movements around the school to places like bathrooms and cafeterias.

Implementing Emergency Plans

As part of managing an outbreak, you’ll want to use the emergency plans that you created exactly for these situations as your blueprint. Heightened cleaning schedules that were initiated in the early stages of the outbreak should continue, as well as monitoring for the right time to consider closing the school.

This is also the time for additional communication to families and the community. Include the details of any shutdown or contingency plans that you have in place and when you would enact those. Be sure to provide a process for two-way communications, so parents can ask questions and provide feedback during the process.

Conclusion

The outbreak of any illness in your school is a cause for alarm. However, a viral outbreak can quickly escalate from a few sick students to an entire community being brought to its knees. 

Viruses can be especially concerning because there are almost no beneficial viruses and they are so challenging to treat. The school environment creates a pathway for viral illnesses to spread quickly and to be carried out to the larger community.

Schools must ensure that the staff is well informed on what to look for and what the school’s emergency plans are. They can extend your communication plan to parents and students on the importance of personal prevention actions, what the administration is doing to protect the school population, and in the worst cases, what emergency procedures are being enacted to minimize the spread of the virus.

Unfortunately, a viral outbreak is likely to hit your school. When it does, it’s crucial that you spot the trends quickly and put enhanced cleaning and other emergency initiatives to work. Spotting these trends can be difficult with using gut feelings or anecdotal reporting. Hard data, collected through automated attendance systems and absence reporting, combined with clear dashboards that illustrate the information and make trends easy to spot, help administrators kick off appropriate actions at the right time, without overreacting. 

Should a viral outbreak occur, technology can also help keep cases in check by facilitating screening, sharing information to the community, and even controlling access of visitors who may carry the virus into the school. These systems may reduce the need to use your emergency plans, but if required, a clear communication plan can get the word out to families and staff quickly.

Schools cannot be expected to completely protect their population from a viral outbreak. But with the right tools, technology, and planning, the impacts of a wide-spread illness can be minimized and the community better protected. Integrating automated technology tools, like ScholarChip’s automated attendance, visitor management system, and administrator dashboards, will help you keep your school and students safe.

The ScholarChip team is dedicated to helping school leaders maximize the safety and well-being of students and the entire school community. Now sure what you should do to be able to identify and manage the spread of a viral outbreak in your school or school district? Feel free to chat with one of our school crisis communication specialists today!