By Mary Kate McGrath - June 25, 2020
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a near-total shutdown of K-12 school buildings in the United States, transitioning teachers, students, and staff to a remote learning model, as per Ed Week. At the peak, closures affected at least 55.1 million students in the United States in 124,000 U.S. public and private schools, with nearly every state either ordered or recommended to keep schools closed through the end of the 2019-2020 schools.
Now, with states and districts planning for Fall of 2020, schools in less hard-hit areas of the country might provide a guide to reopening. Administrators should take proactive measures to mitigate the spread of the disease as students, teachers, and staff return to campus, following the lead of schools that have implemented successful prevention measures and taking CDC recommendations into account.
State and local officials want to reopen K-12 schools for a good reason - until these facilities resume, the nation’s most vulnerable students will continue to be the hardest-hit by the pandemic, lacking access to critical resources such as access to meals, valuable learning time, and social-emotional support, as per NPR. Educators are pushing for increased access to necessary resources to prevent spread of COVID-19 at schools, including masks, gloves and sanitizer, hiring cleaning staff or nurses, conducting testing or contact tracing, as well as planning for social-distancing compliant classrooms. Many schools remain ambivalent about reopening, both about the ability for budget-strapped districts to provide appropriate PPE and about how effective these measures are at preventing community spread.
For school districts wondering what a tentative reopening might look like, small or rural towns might provide a blueprint. In May, Governor Steve Bullock of Montana deemed K-12 schools safe to reopen, but welcoming students back to campus has been a slow process. Willow Creek School in Three Forks, Montana, reopened for just two weeks to allow students age pre-k to high school to return, citing the school's small population (only 56 students attend one large school facility) and a desire to offer community members a semblance of normalcy, as per Great Falls Tribune. Libby, a Montana town with fewer than 3,000 students, is allowing students to return to the single middle school/high school building for what amounts to targeted tutoring sessions, as per NPR. Students are able to sign up for an appointment to receive in-person help with a subject they’re struggling with.
Every state, region, or district will face unique challenges specific to their community amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and will need to take these factors into consideration before reopening K-12 schools. For example, a small rural community with a small student population in a state with lower number of cases will make different considerations than a large city or suburb with a high-number of cases and concerns about community spread.
K-12 schools that have reopened in rural or small-town areas across the United States might still offer a glimpse at what reopening might look like, and even for larger city schools in hot spots, the reopening recommendations from health experts, teaching organizations, and the CDC might be valuable for envisioning a Fall semester.
In April, public health experts, education officials, and educators around the country compiled nine key ideas for what reopening might look like, as per NPR. Several of the ideas outlined included:
In June, the American Federation of Teachers published an additional guidance for K-12 schools, titled, “A Plan To Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” examining public health, public education, and the economy in the era of COVID-19. The document attempts to frame a return to school in the context of a broader reopening of the economy, as well as the safe and responsible reopening of society.
Before considering building reopening recommendations, the organizations note key reopening thresholds such as infrastructure to test, trace, and isolate new cases, deploying public health tools and aligning them with education goals, and involving workers, unions, parents, and communities in all reopening planning.
Once preventative measures and curve-flattening efforts are successfully implemented in the community at large, the AFT recommends taking a look at school-based public health reorganization. While it’s critical to realize different schools, districts, or even rooms will have different needs, several broad recommendations include:
An automated health checks and dynamic polling feature will prove particularly valuable for bringing students, teachers, and staff back to school safely, allowing administrators to check in on the health status of students or workers. Polling allows administrators to engage community members through targeted messages, including instructions for those who might be in quarantine or experiencing symptoms, and help fill shifts for staff who are out sick.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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