Imagine if you will a day when communities across the country are able to suppress the number of new cases of novel coronavirus so that school districts can safely reopen their classrooms. When antigen testing is easily available and contact tracers are employed in sufficient numbers to keep disease transmission low. When parents keep their sick kids at home until they feel better (or test negative) and everyone in the community is willing to keep their distance and wear a cloth face covering properly. When “we’re all in this together” isn’t just a catchy meme, and adults really mean it when they say they will put kids first.
Imagine all that actually happening and then you can imagine schools opening up again safely. Until there is an actual vaccine that has been objectively demonstrated to prevent coronavirus safely and the pandemic can finally be put in the history books, schools will need to adapt to changing circumstances that affect the risks of transmission, illness, and death on any given day or week or month. Depending on those risks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention envisions what K-12 education can look like for the fast-approaching school year. The lowest risk to students and teachers, especially when community COVID-19 is high, is staying at home and learning remotely; a hybrid of remote and in-person learning increases the likelihood of transmission. Proceeding with schooling the old-fashioned way is the riskiest strategy, according to CDC guidelines for school reopening, and is asking for trouble in communities where COVID-19 is not adequately suppressed:
The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. The risk of COVID-19 spread increases in school settings as follows:
• Lowest Risk: Students and teachers engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events.
• More Risk: Small, in-person classes, activities, and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures, or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).
• Highest Risk: Full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.
The CDC says schools should consider “implementing several strategies to encourage behaviors that reduce the spread of COVID-19” between students, teachers, and staff. Those strategies include:
• Staying home when appropriate — Of course, children and staff should stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19. Because asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission are possibly common occurrences, kids and teachers should stay home if they’ve had contact with a person with COVID-19. Ideally, virtual learning options would be available for these children. Parents that have difficulty finding childcare for these situations will be at a disadvantage, obviously — same as it ever was.
• Hand Hygiene and Respiratory Etiquette — Washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and using hand sanitizers containing at least 60% ethyl alcohol (ethanol) will need to be encouraged and monitored. Covering coughs and sneezes and washing hands after using tissues should be enforced.
• Cloth Face Coverings
• Teach and reinforce use of cloth face coverings. Face coverings may be challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings such as school. Face coverings should be worn by staff and students (particularly older students) as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult. Individuals should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering and to wash their hands frequently. Information should be provided to staff, students, and students’ families on proper use, removal, and washing of cloth face coverings.
Note: Cloth face coverings should not be placed on:
— Children younger than 2 years old
— Anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious
— Anyone who is incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cloth face covering without assistance
• Cloth face coverings are meant to protect other people in case the wearer is unknowingly infected but does not have symptoms. Cloth face coverings are not surgical masks, respirators, or other medical personal protective equipment.
• Adequate Supplies — Personal protective equipment (PPE) for students, teachers, and staff includes sinks with soap and water, hand sanitizer, paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings, and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans. All should be supplied by the schools.
• Signs and Messages — Frequent announcements and reminders about behaviors that prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other communications between the school and home will be needed. Some communities will need resources and materials in other languages.
Schools will need to maintain healthy environments using a variety of strategies to keep students, teachers, and staff healthy, according to the CDC guidelines:
• Cleaning and Disinfection — Frequently touched surfaces (playground equipment, door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains) will need to be disinfected frequently. School buses will require similar treatment.
• Shared objects — Gym equipment, art supplies, toys, and games should be kept as clean as possible. Schools should minimize sharing of electronic devices, books, toys, games, and learning aids.
• Ventilation. This may be more difficult in older schools with inadequate heating and cooling systems. If possible, some classes may be held outdoors.
• Water Systems — Students should be encouraged to bring their own drinking water from home instead of sharing drinking fountains with others.
• Modified Layouts — Separating desks and seats by at least 6 feet will help ensure physical distancing. Turning desks in the same direction so students aren’t facing each other will help. Creating distance on school buses may be a challenge, too (see below).
• Physical Barriers and Guides — Physical barriers and partitions may be utilized if distancing between students cannot be maintained. Tape on floors and signs on walls can remind students to keep their distance.
• Communal Spaces — Cafeterias and playgrounds will need to be closed or their use staggered with cleaning after each shift. Bathroom use will need to be monitored to avoid crowding.
• Food Service — Children should be encouraged to bring their own meals from home and eaten in the classroom or outside instead of in the cafeteria. Children with food allergies will need protection in this situation. Disposable plates and utensils are advised.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these suggestions for school bus riders:
• Encourage alternative modes of transportation for students who have other options.
• Ideally, for students riding the bus, symptom screening would be performed prior to being dropped off at the bus. Having bus drivers or monitors perform these screenings is problematic, as they may face a situation in which a student screens positive yet the parent has left, and the driver would be faced with leaving the student alone or allowing the student on the bus.
• Assigned seating; if possible, assign seats by cohort (same students sit together each day).
• Tape marks showing students where to sit.
• When a 6-foot distance cannot be maintained between students, face coverings should be worn.
• Drivers should be a minimum of 6 feet from students; driver must wear face covering; consider physical barrier for driver (eg, plexiglass).
• Minimize number of people on the bus at one time within reason.
• Adults who do not need to be on the bus should not be on the bus.
• Have windows open if weather allows.
Read more of the “Considerations for Schools” guidelines from the CDC here.
Tomorrow, we’ll get an idea of what each classroom will look like when school doors open and classroom learning resumes — if coronavirus can be controlled, if parents have confidence that their kids will be safe when they return to school, and if teachers and staff feel their health will be protected. In the meantime, parents would be advised to plan how remote learning from home will look for your kids and your family if school resumes in a virtual format.