By Carolyn Conte and Rachel Kohn
Thursday, March 12 Updates
4 p.m. Gov. Larry Hogan announces all schools to close.
Tuesday, March 10 Updates
4 p.m. Local universities react: Towson University is canceling classes starting March 11 and preparing to potentially have classes taught remotely once students return from spring break in response to the growing coronavirus outbreak. The University of Md. is also expected to move classes online.
3:30 p.m. Howard County cancels school events: Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano canceled all out-of-state field trips and athletic events due to coronavirus concerns, through the end of the school year. All official out-of-state travel for school system employees also is canceled.
The Jewish community is grappling with the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19.
Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore, a Jewish girls school, sent three sisters home March 4 because they may have come in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Concern about the possible pandemic has spiked, leading other community members to take action.
Now, even a run-of-the-mill stomach virus or flu sends kids to the nurse’s station. Local school officials say the methods recommended to limit transmission of COVID-19 are similar to how they stop the spread of its more common relatives. Moreover, local schools stress that the flu itself is a great concern.
“The people who have died [of COVID-19] had underlying health issues,” said Donna Friedman, Krieger Schechter Day School nurse. She stated that there definitely has been an increase in concern. But, she said, people are overly panicked about COVID-19, when in general they should be concerned about the flu season.
What’s the risk?
As of March 9, Maryland had five positive cases of COVID-19. One of the new cases is an 86-year-old woman in Harford County. In the U.S. in total, 22 deaths have been caused by COVID-19.
Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency but stated this was expected. Maryland is now able to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to carry out its own tests.
This past Sunday, March 8, seven of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community schools announced in an email to parents that it cancelled all extracurricular Purim events.
“After taking into consideration nationally published information by the CDC, state and local health departments, Johns Hopkins University’s recent precautionary measures to cancel public events, the precautions of other communities and institutions, and Torah Umesorah’s recent recommendations for schools provided by their medical consultants and Daas Torah, we have decided that it is unfortunately necessary to cancel all upcoming extra curricular Purim events for our schools. Regular classroom-based learning and activities will continue as normal, unless otherwise guided,” said the letter, according to JTA. It was signed by Bais Yaakov School for Girls, Bnos Yisroel, Cheder Chabad, Ohr Chadash Academy, Talmudical Academy, Torah Institute and Toras Simcha.
Ten students from Towson University Hillel attended AIPAC, and as a result of the confirmed COVID-19 case from it these students are all now self-quarantined. UMBC Hillel is proceeding as normal, with sanitary recommendations to students.
As for Bnos Yisroel, the school administration said March 6 that “we are currently in the process of disinfecting the school as a precautionary measure.”
In an email to parents, the school said that Baltimore City and County health departments and the Maryland Department of Health advised the school to keep the girls, who were exposed during a bat mitzvah tip, from returning to school until they are cleared by the health department. The school will remain open.
In New York, meanwhile, three Jewish day schools closed due to a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Jewish community. Spectators were barred from the NCAA Division III men’s basketball game between Yeshiva University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, hosted at Johns Hopkins University, because of concerns over the virus.
In Israel, visitors are required as March 9 to undergo 14-day home quarantines.
The Orthodox Union put out an advisory that “the number of cases worldwide continues to grow substantially, with greater numbers of infected individuals and affected Jewish communities.”
Don’t Forget the Flu
But as scary as coronavirus sounds, the average American is still at greater risk of catching the flu right now. According to the CDC, there have been at least 34 million flu cases and 20,000 deaths nationally this year.
“At this point, there is a lot of hubbub about coronavirus because it’s new and spreading rapidly and we don’t know that much about it. It is much more likely that people would get the flu,” said Emily Stephens, respiratory disease coordinator for the Virginia Department of Public Health. “Everybody should be concentrating on preventing the flu at this time, and also preparing for the event that coronavirus starts circulating in their community.”
Pneumonia and flu mortality has been low, but more than 125 flu-associated deaths have been reported so far this season. A school will generally report to the health department with a phone call if there is concern about any type of outbreak, said Stephens.
Read more about the Maryland Flu Watch here.
What To Do
“We are very particular that the child leaves if they’re sick,” Friedman said. “We ask parents to keep them home for at least 24 hours and make sure their temperature goes down, not just with Tylenol.” She emphasizes that people wash with soap, water, and friction. Friedman also recommends flu shots and minimal personal contact.
Ohr Chadash Academy has likewise stressed cleanliness. It plans to have the students create a video for the school community to teach their peers proper handwashing techniques. If someone was infected with COVID-19 at the school, they would follow procedures set by the CDC and authorities.
Both schools mentioned a common problem where parents may send their kids to school unaware that the child is sick, and therefore both encourage precautions.
OU tips include washing hands for at least 20 seconds, keeping sanitizer available at the home’s entrance, and for those with symptoms to stay home from shul, even a mourner saying Kaddish. “Protecting and preserving communal health supersedes other considerations.”
To the shuls themselves, the OU recommends that custodial staff be diligent about cleaning and checking dispensers for hand soap or hand sanitizer.
The OU has templates for informative signage to be posted at the shul.
“In a situation in which it is impossible to have an in person [al] mikra Megillah due to pikuach nefesh considerations caused by a coronavirus, it is permissible to hear mikra Megillah via a live phone call or video,” said Rabbi Hershel Schachter, according to the OU’s site.