ST. CLOUD — St. Cloud school district is canceling all out-of-state travel — and asking some recent travelers to stay home — in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has sickened more than 111,000 people worldwide, including two confirmed cases in Minnesota

School resumed as normal Monday after a week-long break except for a new mandate: Anyone who has traveled in the past two weeks to “high-risk” countries cannot return to school for two weeks. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated China, Iran, Italy and South Korea as “high-risk” countries for the transmission of coronavirus. 

That directive impacts a few staff members who recently traveled to Italy, according to Laurie Putnam, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

“They are quarantined from our buildings for 14 days,” Putnam said Monday afternoon.

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Multiple student and staff trips canceled 

The district is also canceling or postponing all out-of-state travel for students and staff.

The decision will impact high school students from Apollo, Tech and McKinley who planned to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in April. That trip was organized jointly with St. Cloud State University. 

The ban also affects staff who were scheduled to attend a conference on the BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks) program in California in April, as well as five administrators who were scheduled to attend an Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conference in California later this week. 

The administrative conference was canceled by the event’s organizers. 

“We are seeing cancellations by large organizations, as well,” Putnam said. “People are just being really cautious.”

The district’s travel ban will also likely affect the robotics teams’ trip to the national championship this spring. 

“At this point, we are asking that to be on hold,” Putnam said. “We are monitoring this daily in an ongoing way. If this situation were to be resolved quickly, we could certainly lift that travel ban. But at this point, we want to be sure we are keeping our students and our staff safe.”

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As of Monday, the district had not canceled any school events such as games or concerts. The district is coordinating with the state health department and Minnesota State High School League for guidance on large events such as athletic and activities tournaments. 

“At this point … they are recommending that we proceed as usual,” Putnam said. 

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The district is partnering with CentraCare and Stearns County Public Health to monitor the spread of COVID-19. 

The district’s operations department is revisiting its cleaning protocol to ensure surfaces on buses and in schools and nutritional areas are being cleaned thoroughly and frequently throughout the day. 

“We’re making sure we focus on any areas that are high-touch like door nobs, light switches and desks,” Putnam said. 

Sartell-St. Stephen and Sauk Rapids Rice school district superintendents told the Times on Monday they are continuing to follow recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Education and the CDC. 

According to Sartell-St. Stephen Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert, both state departments have communicated to school districts that closing schools on a statewide basis is a “last resort measure.” 

Epidemiologist: Schools could screen for sick people or close 

Kathy Como-Sabetti, senior epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, talked about increasing infection control practices at schools during a call with the media Monday. 

The department recommends schools implement best practices such as proper hand-washing and encouraging people to stay home when sick. 

As the outbreak worsens, schools could potentially screen students and staff at arrival to ensure ill people immediately go home. And in the most dire situations, schools could close for a period of time as they have in Japan.

Como-Sabetti said reports out of China show that less than 1% of cases were children ages 10 and younger and an additional 1% of cases were people age 10 to 19, which shows that children are less likely to get the disease — or if they do, they are less likely to be severely impacted. 

But managing the spread of COVID-19 among youth is crucial for the larger community and people most susceptible to virus complications such as older people or people with compromised immune systems. 

So closing schools could be an effective strategy to decrease the transmission in the overall community, according to Como-Sabetti. 

“Kids can be very effective transmitters of many viral pathogens,” Como-Sabetti said, noting children hold the viruses for longer and are less likely to follow preventative measures such as hand-washing and covering coughs. 

St. Cloud school district has closure protocols in place, if necessary. Secondary students would participate in e-learning days using school-issued devices, and elementary students would have packets with learning activities to take home. 

Reporters Nora Hertel and Erik Newland contributed to this report. 

Jenny Berg is the cities and schools reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-259-3680 or Follow her on Twitter @bergjenny.

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