21 Mar

We started sharing information about COVID-19 with local schools in late January. At the time, it looked like yes, a novel (new) coronavirus, but also like less of a big deal than the regular old flu, which was going around our region.

“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask about plans for teleschool,” Nancy Messonnier, a CDC director, said during a press briefing on Tuesday. “I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions.”

In February, that changed. When the CDC director made her remarks, it was without giving education officials a heads up, or any guidance. So for many, it was like going from zero to 60, with freaked out parents and employees wondering what the plan was.

After the press conference, when my phone buzzed in a group chat of school PR professionals around the county with word of what had been said, I knew the shit was going to hit the fan, if you’ll excuse the expression. In Sacramento, I emailed someone on my team and our nursing coordinator, to get them going on some messaging and planning.

Things just exploded from there. I became the leader of a group of people working on schools’ response to COVID-19 (if you’re familiar with the National Incident Management System, I was/am the incident commander).

All of a sudden, we were crafting even more messages to local school district superintendents and charter schools, giving them updates on the situation and providing templates they could customize to communicate with their community. I was fielding dozens of media questions and interview requests. I was pulling people together across my organization, to get them working on plans and resources for districts, but also for our own response. Gotta have continuity of operations for us, too! I was prepping for press conferences; taking calls from district and school leaders with questions from the medical to the mundane; liaising with public health; and more. We expanded our communications to include not only district and charter school leaders, but also private school and preschool leaders because of the scope of the situation.

(I want to be clear that I’m super lucky to work with a great team of people. I was/am able to lean on one member of my team for a lot of writing and website updating, our school nurse coordinator is fantastic and is/was a delight to work with, and we have a coordinator who has been doing an amazing job running the pandemic planning process. As things have evolved, the number of people helping has grown.)

Things built and built and built. For a long time, there were no known cases of COVID-19 in San Diego County. Then there were cases, but it was clear how they were acquired. Because there was no known community spread, the guidance from public health was that there was no reason to close schools. After all, for A LOT of children, school is the safest and best place to be. Some people were pretty upset about that. I got a lot of emails and calls and messages through social media from people who were very angry that schools were still open. I’ll be honest– many/most of those people were coming from an incredible place of privilege. I’m not sure why they didn’t just keep their kids out of school of they were so worried (actually I do know why– they didn’t want to get unexcused absences, which is lame), but I didn’t say that to any of them. I tried to explain the facts — public health, who we’re working with very closely, wasn’t recommending closure, and many kids depend on schools for meals, safety, supervision. It didn’t really help; I had one parent continue to harangue my with multiple emails a day. Oh, and I was bombarded by messages from friends and acquaintances wanting insider information about if/when schools were going to close. It was… not helpful.

And I worked and worked and worked. Hours and hours and hours. Every day. It was incredibly stressful.

In the middle of all this, I had to go to the doctor to get a TB test, which is required for my work. When I was there, they took my blood pressure, which always runs a little high. This time it was really high, repeatedly. They told me I needed to take it at home, and come back in a week to have it checked in the office. I did and it was high. HIGH. Like, dangerously high. When I went into the office the second time, they were worried I was going to have a major medical issue and put me on blood pressure meds right then and there.

The pressure continued to build. Eventually, local schools decided to close. That was good, in that then the specter of closure that had been looming was at least confirmed, but also difficult.

Our team put together a pandemic response plan for schools that basically had four phases: prevention (focus on getting people to wash their hands, stay home when sick, etc. so the disease doesn’t spread), preparing (what needs to change and how if there are cases or if schools close?), response (we have cases or we’ve closed, now what), and recovery (how do we get back to normal?). The decision to close took us out out prevention and really depends on how well we prepared, because it’s time to respond to this new phase!

Part of what’s so challenging about this is that the situation is so fluid and fast-moving. Our medical knowledge about the disease kept increasing, and therefore our guidance kept evolving, too. (For example, at one point, people were to stay home if they have a fever of 100.4; a day or two later, it was 100. Or, another example, at one point, the guidance was people should self-quarantine if they had been to a CDC-designated Level 3 country, then it was Level 2 or 3, then it was 3 again, and now it’s Level 3 but the countries have expanded to include all of Europe.) Then you add in the political stuff — lack of leadership at the federal level, governance by press conference, dueling egos — and it’s even harder to remain proactive, not reactive.

And for my organization, as I’ve mentioned, we have to worry not only about our own operations, but also supporting all the schools in the region. So it’s two big buckets of work, all of which needs to be done yesterday.

Now that schools are closed, we are focused on helping mitigate loss. Trying to keep kids fed. Trying to keep them learning. Which is easier said than done, frankly. If you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty privileged (lord knows I am). You have internet, you have a computer, you have some sort of means. But many of our families don’t have internet access (or physically can’t because they live in areas in the backcountry with no service), or don’t have a computer, or don’t have the ability to work from home. So what do we do for those families, for those kids?

We closed our offices on Wednesday. Only people whose work must be done onsite are to work from the office. Everyone else is remote. So I worked from home Wednesday and Thursday, and went in for about five hours on Friday for command center-style meetings with our leadership team and local school districts. Then I went home and worked some more, ha ha. (Mike very helpfully reminded me of my habit, when I worked from home for a previous job, of working all the time. I’m trying to set some boundaries and be intentional about not doing that now.)

Michaela is now learning at home. On the first day of homeschool, she did a media interview with our local NBC affiliate about how that was going. Mike made her an amazing schedule that keeps her focused. She has done a couple of Zoom meetings with her teacher and classmates, and I think she appreciates the chance to see their faces. It was tough because Mike had shoots on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (thank goodness, since so much of his work has dried up due to event cancelations), so Michaela was on her own more than we would have liked, but she is a total trooper.

The governor had a press conference last week and said he hoped he was wrong, but he doesn’t think schools will open again this year. That set off a whole new flurry of worries and inquiries. And that’s basically how it’s been. Try our best to plan, then react to some external force, then try to plan some more.

We’ve told schools it’s premature to commit to a reopening date, and to plan for an extended closure. The better everyone can do at social distancing, the sooner can get back to normal. That’s pretty much where I’m staking my hopes. I want Michaela to be able to go back to school. I want to be able to go to a local restaurant and enjoy a seated meal. I want Mike to be making awesome videos for cool events. So everyone: wash your hands and stay the f*** home!

One Response to “COVID-19”