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What Reopening Schools Could Look Like Based On Schools Who've Already Opened

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.

Related Blog: The CDC Released New Guidelines for Schools Reopening
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.

What Are Reopening Best Practices

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:

  • Increased health and hygiene measures. In New York City, “regional enrichment centers” that provide childcare for frontline workers might offer a blueprint for sanitary efforts. These hygiene efforts include mask-wearing, temperature checks, hand-washing, frequent sanitization, and enforcing social distancing for very-small children
  • Small class sizes. In an effort to support testing and contact tracing efforts, limiting classroom size to 12 people or fewer might be necessary. Additionally, putting a large number of students in a single classroom could put educators at greater-risk, and is a practice public health experts have long frowned upon. Staggering class schedules might be useful to limit the number of individuals in a classroom at a single time.
  • Readjust school calendars. Teachers and students will likely struggle to make up time out of school, and administrators recommend moving the start of the year up or extending the next academic year. Additionally, all assemblies, sports games, parent-teacher conferences, or high-risk gatherings should be canceled or moved to virtual.
  • Remote Learning. Experts unanimously agree that remote learning will need to continue due to staggered schedules, schools preparing to close again for future waves of infection, and students needing remediation. Nearly all states should do an assessment of the digital divide, and continue to fund resources for communities that are unable to provide students with broadband or laptops. 

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.

Related Blog: Managing Mental Health Remotely For K-12 Schools
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:

  • Class sizes of 12-15 students which will, in most cases, allow for physical distancing protocols.
  • Monitoring access to school facilities and limiting the number of guests allowed at school facilities
  • Modifying school transportation to allow for staggered arrival times and multiple arrival locations to limit large gatherings of students, and reduce risk of closed, high-contact spaces such as bus interiors.
  • Additional considerations and planning for students with disabilities, underlying health conditions, asthma or respiratory illness, and special education requirements
  • Districts should consider providing up-to-date education and training on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviors for teachers, staff, students, or parents
  • Provide additional counseling support during this difficult time, including professional development, small-group instruction, and all the other social-emotional and academic supports necessary during this transition
Nearly every school district would benefit from creating a coronavirus communication plan, leveraging technology to better reach students, parents, teachers, and staff. A coronavirus response solution can help administrators stay connected to teachers, parents and students amid reopening. Key decisions about when the best time to bring everyone back, how that will happen, and who needs to be involved in the process can be facilitated through an emergency connect solution.

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. 

Universal - K-12 Coronavirus Response Solution Prod Sheet

Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

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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