Since Spring Break, it’s been unclear whether the COVID-19 pandemic was on track to make the 2020-21 school year just as challenging–if not more. The virus was like a wrecking ball that forced schools to shift to distance learning almost overnight. This historic disruption has changed the idea of going to school as we know it.
Poised to challenge K-12 leaders even more, COVID-19 continues to have them questioning: Is it safe to reopen yet? Many may say yes, but how will schools go about it? What does education look like amidst a pandemic?
We know you have questions on how to be safe, smart, and strategic as you get ready for schools to reopen. And we’re here to address as many concerns as we can.
Schools serve as a pinnacle of a community’s infrastructure. A safe and healthy school means safe and healthy regions are functioning as designed. Restorative practices depend upon preventing COVID-19 transmission in communities.
Now, many schools are planning to reopen with caution, but this has come with mixed reviews. Many education leaders and parents want to ensure they are not moving in an ill-advised fashion.
Here’s what we know...
It’s better to tailor your operations to lessen the rate of transmission. Schools ordered to reopen have experienced closures almost instantly, like in New York City and Houston, Texas. They were on an ‘ordered to open’ basis but with different approaches.
New York’s approach has been to shut down schools in high outbreak regions temporarily. Texas has left closure measures up to parents and district leaders to decide. State officials feel that if parents want their children to learn in-person, they have that right.
Schools’ unique and critical role enables students to receive academic instruction and provide other essential services and supports.
Influenza, common cold, and COVID-19 will all be significant threats at once. Health experts expect colder weather mixed with flu season, reopening of schools, and pandemic fatigue to be a recipe for the most challenging months yet.
During the Winter months, crowded places indoors mean more opportunities for viral particles to disperse. Crowding will result in an increased risk for the virus to spread.
Outbreaks in schools could keep growing in the months ahead. Schools with clearance to operate in person can anticipate suffering from outbreaks more than distance learners.
Administrators should shape COVID-19 framework controls to maintain CDC grade safety implementations. Ease parent-teacher communication by promoting behaviors to reduce the spread of the virus. Remind them to stay at home when appropriate.
Coaching proper hand and hygiene etiquette will be beneficial for all parties. Masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) being readily available will show regard for your school’s role in the community. Signage around your campus with CDC considerations will also be helpful reminders.
With vaccines now being administered, do not lighten up on your health regulations and standards.
Aside from indicator data in your region, some learning modalities will stop the spread of the virus. Indicators will be determined on a risk basis by COVID-19 data reports. The lowest risk being virtual learning. The high risk being full capacity in-door learning.
Before moving forward with full capacity campus operations, consider layering mitigation strategies to get schools into compliance:
Masks: The tool most noted by top health officials for slowing the spread of COVID-19 transmission. Embolden the need for consistent wearing of face masks by all students, teachers, and staff to limit transmission and further school closures.
Social Distancing: The safe distance is 6ft to 8ft if possible to stop transmission of the virus. Your mask will be your first layer of defense. Remembering to remain distant from others and crowds is your second measure of security.
Hand and Hygiene Etiquette: Provide ‘how to’ reminders to reinforce handwashing with soap and water for no less than 20 seconds. Handwashing should occur multiple times a day. Make sure to monitor the cleanliness of your students and staff. For example, ensuring they cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze with a tissue. Again, make sure handwashing happens soon after these moments.
Cleaning Common Surfaces: Surfaces distinguished as a frequent touchpoint should be cleaned and disinfected multiple times a day.
Cohorting: Cohorts or “learning pods” are small groups of learners often led by a teacher. The purpose is to satisfy social interaction and minimize exposure for all persons involved. This also makes for simpler contact tracing in case of an outbreak.
Adequate PPE: Promote healthy hygiene habits by providing sufficient PPE. Items include soap, hand sanitizer with 70% or higher alcohol content, tissues, paper towels, disinfectant wipes, face masks, and other things you can get on hand.
Hybrid Scheduling: Staggering schedules map out the amount of time allowed on campus. This will also limit contact between cohorts and limit mixing with others as much as possible.
Food Service: Avoid foods that do not come personally portioned. Communicate to parents packed lunches are suggested, but the food provided is feasibly served individually.
Health Screens: Determine if your safety culture aligns with government regulations for students and staff alike. Consider a system to monitor the symptoms of individuals and their families. Digital sign-ins, record keeping, and contact tracing will keep your files accurate and up to date. These additions will guide districts through their reopening decision-making phase.
In general, the virus’s risk of spreading in schools increases across the remote, hybrid, and in-person learning continuum. The range of mitigation strategies you can layer to make for a healthier campus.
There have been many questions presented about the future of schooling. The management of students’ and teachers’ overall health and lack of access to technology are being tested. Everything is all about access and ability.
Aside from health and safety measures, grade-level assessments of readiness are updating in schools. With these recent changes, parents are more involved than ever in their child’s learning experience. Some parents are helping educators re-think the idea of school.
Now with distance learning, parent-teacher relationships have grown to be more personable. They both understand their part in a student’s success. So, ideas such as virtual schools and learning pods have emerged at a higher attendance rate.
Outside of homeschooling, these concepts have challenged traditional school settings. This way, parents and teachers can see what works for different learning styles. A promising outcome from this will be the reduction of learning loss.
Other helpful tips researchers suggest stem from new methods of assessments. Comparable data will aid in understanding the academic breakdown the pandemic caused. Knowing the performance level of student groups will be essential for implementing resource allocation and intervention.
In addition, we must know how to support both teachers and parents through this pandemic. Communicating new curriculum ideas to other parents and teachers can change the upcoming school year’s success trajectory.
Schools must also consider all aspects of students’ risk and well-being when schools do not reopen for in-person classes. Included are the potential adverse impacts on students’ social-emotional, behavioral, and mental health.
There are many critical services as well that students won’t be able to access without school aid. From special needs services to food insecurity, schools need to serve their children in need.
In some states, school leaders are using funding as a measuring tool to see if they will open or not. We encourage education leaders to protect the health of not just themselves but the communities they serve.
Before students can learn, we need to address their conditions, engagement, and well-being. Moving forward will not be an easy feat. However, longstanding inequities have increased vulnerable populations within schools. When we protect and empower our students, we are securing our future as well.