Whenever we return to school, there will still be risk from spread of COVID. Many districts are working hard to prepare for that day. A number of documents with extensive guidelines for return to school are referenced below. However, I wish to highlight some of the concerns I haven’t heard talked about as much.
Important components of risk reduction when returning to school:
1. Effective masks
2. Adequate ventilation
3. Minimizing time indoors
4. Adequate screening
5. Practicing social distancing protocols
6. Community education about parents’ and community members’ role and responsibility in keeping all safe
7. Clear and stable metrics and plans for response to increase or consistent decrease in cases
8. Clarity about appropriate expectations for what is taught and how
9. Consideration of staff burn-out and implications this has for adequately staffing school return and educators’ ability to comply with requirements
Ideas for implementation of these requirements for risk reduction:
Effective masks -
At minimum, masks meet CDC standard, candle test and tight fitting
School should have good supply for those who don’t have mask, spoil their mask, or whose mask doesn’t meet standards
Ideal would be to supply permanent masks to each child, though they would be allowed to wear their own effective mask if they chose
Masks must be marked with ID so that they don’t get exchanged
Masks must be kept clean - responsibility of home to wash regularly? How to assess?
Masks that could be decorated and individualized would be good to help increase compliance.
Face shields or plexiglass barriers are not an adequate replacement for face masks
Any staff working in situation where someone is unmasked should be provided medical grade PPE
Adequate ventilation -
All schools inspected to determine how much they can do to approach ASHRAE standards. This information made publicly available
All feasible upgrades to ventilation system should be high priority
All windows that can be opened should be able to open
Decisions about air flow in school should be made before opening (doors open or shut, use of positive/negative pressure in various parts of the school) and discussed as part of orientation to return with explanations
If standard ventilation cannot reach 5 air exchanges an hour (highly unlikely in most situations), portable air filtration systems adequate to achieve 5 air exchanges should be provided in all classrooms.
Guidance needed from state about best portable air filtration systems and placement including use of more than one in many rooms to be able to direct air flow
Noise of unit at high speed needs to be assessed
Can state use purchasing power to lower cost to schools and districts?
Need to train on protocols of how much time to use at what speed
Units with timer that can start a couple of hours before class arrives are most effective
Need to replace filters on schedule and practice safe filter exchange to avoid contamination from filters. Need to assign responsibility who will track and do this in individual classrooms
Minimizing time indoors -
Have clearly marked areas outdoors and schedule to keep distance between pods
Have funding and/or clothes closet available to ensure that every child has warm outdoor clothing that works in misty conditions (see Scotland)
Institute brief quiet time before reentering building to assure masks in place and breathing is slowed down from wild playtime
Use more frequent shorter breaks outdoors to increase ventilation in building as possible - (i.e. turn portable air filters on high and open windows)
Minimize early arrival or late departure from school
4. Adequate screening -
Provide sufficient rapid tests as well as easy access to PCR tests and results to determine if asymptomatic spread is happening in a classroom. Consider pooled testing for more frequent surveillance screening
Require families to report any exposure to a person with COVID or COVID symptoms outside of school
Consider waste water monitoring to detect outbreaks or asymptomatic spread early
Practicing social distancing protocols
This should start in the home now. Parents can be given information on how to introduce and reinforce the idea that following safety protocols will be important when students return to school. See below for references
Once in school, materials to reinforce protocols including marking spaces for each child and reminder posters should be made readily available
Community education about parents’ and community members’ roles and responsibilities in keeping all safe
The fact that students have returned to school must not be a signal that the rest of society can open up. Expectations for opening of bars, restaurants, and other businesses must not be relaxed. Closures and restrictions can be addressed through a public service campaign that frames protocols as the way we work together to return children to school
Families must continue to practice current safety measures whenever possible. Being freed from 24/7 childcare can lead to more social mixing. Now is the time for a preemptive social media campaign stressing the need to continue to follow safety protocols outlined by health officials.
Clear and stable metrics and plans for response to increase or consistent decrease in cases
With varying parental and community fears and pressures, preemptively establishing and publishing protocols for response to increase in cases is important. These should be backed with available scientific evidence and any subsequent changes should be clearly explained.
State protocols, either mandated or suggested, are important to relieve local districts of the time, effort, and knowledge required to develop and defend plans.
Clarity about appropriate expectations for what is taught and how
Learning safety protocols, practicing these, and continuing reminders must be a top priority for all classes
Addressing social emotional issues must rise to the top. Teachers should be provided with materials to help do this in the general classroom. Adequate staff must be available to do small group and individual interventions as needed
It is important to learn the status of each student’s family. Have there been any deaths? Has the family experienced financial difficulties? Have there been other traumatic events? Outreach through current distance learning, parent questionnaires, and social work can help get this information
A push for rapid academic remediation may be ineffective or even harmful if students are not first stabilized and comfortable with school re-entry
It is important to acknowledge the need for many students to have time to socialize. Having ways to structure this while following safety protocols will be important.
Some students who have thrived with social distancing may have difficulty returning to the classroom. It is important to be prepared to support them as needed.
Classroom based informal assessment can initially guide determination of where the student is academically. This can be followed later with short, actionable assessments
Any assessments (such as summative assessments) that do not lead to immediate information for teaching should be discontinued for now.
Research and curriculum support should be made available to help educators teach a significantly expanded range of educational levels within a pod. Maintaining small class sizes will help accomplish this.
Consideration of staff burn-out and implications this has for adequately staffing school return and educators’ ability to comply with requirements
Educational staff must be a priority population for vaccinations before return especially considering the new strain of virus. Data on possible infectiousness after vaccination should be used to determine priority for families of educators, especially vulnerable family members.
Clear and consistent acknowledgement of how hard teachers have been working and recognition of their ability to innovate in difficult circumstances should lead any discussion of future expectations
Generous use of shortened school days, work days, and mental health days will allow educators time to reflect and craft their teaching and also continue teaching in difficult circumstances. Plans for use of substitutes while maintaining safety protocols will facilitate this
Clarity on how protocols will be enacted and enforced is essential. Many principals will find it hard to develop this with their other demands. Help from district and state officials will be important.
Clear guidelines are needed for assignment of responsibilities for cleaning and other safety protocols. Who wipes down the classroom? Who makes structural changes such as distanced cubbies? Who changes filters? Who monitors masking behavior in hallways?, etc.
Teachers may encounter increased parental questions and concerns. Developing clear ways for parents to communicate and a roster of people to reach out to concerned parents will be essential to relieve teachers of too high demand.
As guidelines are fine tuned, it will be important to consult with educators on the ground about what works, what doesn’t and surprises that have occurred as we move through these challenging times.
Other protocols include much more information. These include: