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New Fodder for Social Media Hoaxes in School Communities: Coronavirus

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By Gabrielle Wanneh

Districts have enough to worry about in responding to the potential health risk of the coronavirus outbreak. Pranksters and scammers are adding one more thing:  the spreading of misinformation on social media that interferes with their operations. 

Last weekend, Montgomery County Public Schools had to refute a series of fake social media posts claiming that schools would be closed due to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19. The school system addressed the issue on its website, notifying parents and students that any social posts suggesting that schools would be closed on Monday, March 9, were false. 

"Any information about school closures or updates relating to the coronavirus will come directly from county health officials and the district and will be posted on the official MCPS website," the district said. "The health and safety of our students remain our top priority." 

MCPS Communications Supervisor Gboyinde Onijala explained that the creation of fake posts causes a disruption to the county's efforts to share accurate, timely information, and stirs up more panic in the community.  

Earlier this month, the first three cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Maryland. As of March 12, the majority of the 12 total cases in Maryland were found in Montgomery County. 

The fake news on school closings is just the latest iteration of online scams, hoaxes, and misinformation that have been popping up in order to cash in on the hysteria surrounding the coronavirus. 

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh has been warning residents about the scams related to the virus, explaining how some scammers are posing as authority figures such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), and sending emails or other forms of promotion claiming to offer updated information on the virus and how people can protect themselves. 

And some viral Facebook posts had been spreading false information earlier this month about a government mandate requiring workplaces and schools in certain states to close down in order to deter the spread of the virus, according to Fact Check.  

It's unclear how many other districts might be dealing with virus-related hoaxes, but Montgomery County is certainly not alone. 

A hoax about Paramus, N.J., Public Schools being closed began circulating earlier this week. When opening the district's website, a pop-up is currently displayed dispelling the rumor before entering the actual site.

 Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky have also had to address rumors about their schools being closed, although these falsehoods spread more by word of mouth. 

"Ironically, you'd think it would be social media," said JCPS Communications Manager Mark Hebert. "In this case, it started with just parents and students talking." 

According to Hebert, there wasn't as much confusion on social media about the district, in which schools are still operating as normal. However, district administration still received phone calls from parents who had been hearing and believing the opposite. 

JCPS has been working to reinforce that schools are still open and any information suggesting otherwise is false at this point.  

"When you put in every communication you can and still have people calling to ask you if schools are closed, it can be frustrating," Hebert said. "But I don't think there's such a thing as over-communicating." 

Meanwhile, other school districts have had yet to deal with any rumors close to this extent. 

"We definitely don't want the persistence of social media rumors," said Robyn Harris, the director of news and information for Dallas Independent School District in Texas. 

According to Harris, DISD hasn't experienced any false information being spread about the school system but has been taking measures to ensure that the community is aware of the right information and in a timely manner. This includes working directly with principals to ensure proper communication in schools and regularly updating the district website with new information. 

Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico also haven't seen significant interference from social media regarding misinformation on their schools and the coronavirus. No cases of the virus have yet been confirmed in that state, of course, but school districts have been implementing safety precautions and sending out information regardless. 

"Over the years, we've put a tremendous amount of effort into building our communication with parents and students," said Monica Armenta, executive director of communications for APS. "I would hope that the school community knows where to look to get their news about the district." 

Although APS is one of the largest school systems in the state, the communications department is still relatively small, consisting of only four staff members.  

"When something like this happens, you're overextended and it's a push to keep up to date," Armenta said. 

Image: iStock/Getty

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