Chattanooga schools, universities prepare for coronavirus impact

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / McCallie School is seen on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned the American public to prepare for an outbreak of novel coronavirus, and though no confirmed cases have been reported in Tennessee, institutions across Hamilton County are ramping up preparedness efforts as the number of reported coronavirus cases in the United States increased Monday.

Hamilton County Schools officials say that the virus is a "significant concern" and the school district is working with the local health department to ensure it has plans for an outbreak.

Few public school districts in Tennessee have issued specific protocols for schools to follow, such as planning for remote online classes should schools be forced to close, according to Chalkbeat Tennessee.

April Priest, emergency management planner at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, said public health agencies have legal authority to restrict assembly groups and issue quarantines - controlled monitoring of people who may have been exposed to an infectious disease - or isolation - separating people who are already sick from people who are well.

"We have the authority to close school systems down and take mandatory snow days. We also have the authority to cancel large sports events, including entertainment things like concerts or community festivals," she said, as well as closing mass transit.

But Hamilton County Schools officials say that the district's plans mirror those for any flu strain, which is always a concern this time of year.

"Certainly, the virus is a concern, as are different flu strains out there this time of year. We have battled the flu fairly effectively this year as we have not had to miss days at this point due to a large number of staff or students affected," reads a statement from spokesman Tim Hensley. "Cleaning [regimens] for schools and buses and working to remind children that it is important to cover a cough or sneeze appropriately has helped. Parents have also assisted us in reinforcing good habits like covering a cough appropriately or washing hands regularly."

The district's 104 school nurses are working with individual schools to ensure that proper cleaning is taking place and to identify any flu-like symptoms, Hensley added.

The novel coronavirus has spawned more than 80,000 cases around the world, but there have only been six confirmed deaths in the U.S. so far. The new virus has infected more people in China than were sickened during the 2002-2003 SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, outbreak.

There is no vaccine or antiviral treatment for coronavirus, so prevention and supportive care are the main tactics to combat the spread.

Many countries have restricted travel to China, especially the Hubei Province - the epicenter of the outbreak. And as the virus spreads throughout Europe, there are growing concerns about a potential outbreak in the U.S.

At this point, Hamilton County Schools hasn't had to cancel any international school trips, but some local private schools have had to figure out what to do with international boarding students or pre-planned trips over spring breaks.

About 30 students at Chattanooga's McCallie School, a private all-boys school, are affected by travel restrictions to China and South Korea, according to Bill Steverson, spokesman for the school. One student is from the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak originated.

The school sent a message to parents last week about its spring break, which begins in early April.

"We do have boarding students from countries that have been directly affected by the virus, including Chinese students. We have talked with those students and their parents and are offering increased medical and counseling services to them. We've also decided to keep the dormitories open during Spring Break," the message reads.

Since McCallie's students from East Asia will be unable to travel home and their parents will not be able to visit them, they will be treated to fun activities and local travel while they are stuck in Chattanooga over the break, officials said.

Baylor School also has 54 international students - 36 from China - and is helping them make plans for their spring break, which begins on April 2. Like McCallie students, many already have made plans for spring break, but the school is helping those "who had planned to return home to find alternate plans, such as college visits or staying with relatives who live in the U.S.," according to spokeswoman Barbara Kennedy.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has had to cancel two study abroad trips for students - a trip to Japan in March and one to China in May. Currently, 21 UTC students are studying abroad outside the U.S.

"We are closely monitoring the situation as it continues to develop," read a statement from a UTC spokesperson. "Should the need arise, we have a plan in place to re-locate any students who may be impacted."

McCallie has one international trip to South America planned for April, but the school has not made a decision to cancel or reschedule the trip, Steverson said.

Baylor is also working closely with faculty supervisors on upcoming spring break trips to India, Jamaica and Guatemala, but those trips have not been canceled, according to Kennedy. Things are changing rapidly though, she emphasized to the Times Free Press last week.

As far as preventative measures, most schools and universities are working with or monitoring guidance from the Chattanooga – Hamilton County Health Department, the Tennessee Department of Health and the CDC.

In Hamilton County schools, custodial staff are cleaning surfaces frequently, such as desks, countertops, light switches, doorknobs, and other often-touched areas each day and buses are also wiped down regularly, Hensley said.

The district is also encouraging parents to remind their children of hygiene or what to do when they cough or sneeze - such as covering or wiping their noses and mouths with an elbow or a tissue, instead of their hands.

"We ask parents for their understanding if a child is sent home as we are taking these extra precautions at this time for the safety of all students," Hensley said in a statement. "We also ask parents to please keep their child at home if any of these symptoms are present. Students should return to school only after being fever free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication."

Priest said the health department's whole preparedness team is "constantly monitoring" reports from state and federal officials as well as meeting with local partners, including hospitals, police and fire, in case they need to implement quarantine and isolation plans.

"One of our main objectives will be to make sure we're giving people accurate information," she said.

In Tennessee, the health commissioner and the local health officer have the ability to issue quarantines based on their best judgment. Willfullying breaking quarantine in Tennessee is a class D misdemeanor.

Priest said the general public can help prevent the spread of any contagious disease by staying informed and practicing basic infection control strategies, such as regular handwashing, practicing coughing and sneezing etiquette, limiting close contact with others, wiping down surfaces that could harbor germs and self isolating if sick.

"I can't stress this enough - stay at home if you're sick. It's still flu season, and what might just be a regular flu or sickness for you could seriously impact the person next to you who doesn't have the same robust immune system," Priest said.

In addition, she recommends that employers and workers review company policies for sick leave and telecommuting.

"[Employers] also need to start preparing on what actions they will take to make sure that we can keep our businesses open and maintain resilience in our community," Priest said.

While there's no reason to panic, she said it's always wise to check that at-home emergency kits are stocked with food, prescription drugs, medical supplies, pet supplies and cash in case there's a need to remain isolated at home.

"The specific stages at which we implement these [isolation] plans are driven directly by epidemiological risk data and guidance from federal and state counterpoints," Priest said, adding that if an outbreak occurred utilities likely would remain unaffected. "Probably the scariest part of a 10-day quarantine wouldn't be staying at home for 10 days, but it would be being with your family for 10 days."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.