Opening Schools Safely Truly Takes A Village

Families and communities need schools to be ready to reopen as soon as public health officials signal it is safe. After all, the nation has recently been reminded just how vital schools really are. Schools connect students with peers and mentors, channel youthful energy into productive pursuits, teach essential academic skills and knowledge, and give overwhelmed parents room to breathe and work.

This makes it urgent that schools find a way to reopen this fall, if at all feasible. Of course, reopening in a manner that is safe and responsive will involve novel challenges. That is why leaders must begin planning immediately. But let us be clear: A number of public health officials—including the habitually cautious Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—have indicated that they expect schools will likely be able to reopen this fall.

What will it take to get schools ready for this fall, amid enormous uncertainty? The path to reopening must be based on the public health frameworks guiding the gradual relaxation of the intensive social distancing measures adopted this spring. Any consideration about reopening must consider the wide variability of circumstances states, communities, and schools confront.1 Depending on the public health situation, there may be waves of stopping and starting, partial or staggered openings, or other developments (determined by local health facilities, population vulnerability, and more).2 These decisions will require robust community engagement to yield both coherent planning and community support.

To stay safe, there are a number of steps schools should take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They include:

Physical distancing

The goal should be to stay at least 6 feet apart to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. However, spacing desks at least 3 feet apart and avoiding close contact may have similar benefits for students–especially if students wear cloth face coverings and do not have symptoms of illness.

Teachers and staff, who are likely more at risk of getting COVID-19 from other adults than from children at school, should stay the full 6 feet apart from each other and students when possible. Teachers and staff should also wear cloth face coverings and limit in-person meetings with other adults.

When possible, outdoor spaces can be used for instruction and meals. Students should also have extra space to spread out during activities like singing and exercising.

Cloth face coverings & hand hygiene

Frequent hand washing with soap and water is important for everyone. In addition, all adults should wear cloth face coverings. Preschool and elementary students can benefit from wearing masks if they do not touch their mouths or noses a lot. Secondary school students should wear cloth face masks, especially when they can’t stay a safe distance apart.

Classroom changes

To help limit student interaction outside the classroom, schools can:

  • Have teachers move between classrooms, rather than having students fill the hallways during passing periods.
  • Allow students to eat lunches at their desks or in small groups outdoors instead of in crowded lunchrooms.
  • Leave classroom doors open to help reduce high touch surfaces such as doorknobs.

Temperature checks and testing

COVID testing ​of all students is not possible for most schools. Taking students’ temperature at school also may not always be feasible. Schools should establish ways to identify students with fever or other symptoms of illness. ​They can also frequently remind students, teachers, and staff to stay home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher or have any signs of illness.

Schools can also practice screening and contact tracing for all students, faculty, and guests. One company offer a tool to do just that is DrOwl. Recently the company provided a free electronic screening and monitoring tool to Texas schools.  You can learn more about it in their press release today, here.

Many schools currently use paper tracking methods to screen those entering their facility to see if they have symptoms.  Typically, each person fills out a piece of paper, which leaves the facility with a stack of papers to keep track of in order to compile into a visitor log. Proper tracking is very challenging with a paper method, especially when time is of the essence because of a COVID-19 positive diagnosis.  This is why paper tracking could increase a school’s potential liability. 

DrOwl’s groundbreaking technology solves the problems associated with paper-based contact tracing. At a time when every moment counts, DrOwl is helping keep employees, students, and guests safe in real-time.  With DrOwl, everyone can electronically “check-in” and answer a list of questions screening for symptoms and a history of exposure to COVID-19 before they’re able to enter the school.  

Cleaning and disinfecting

Schools should follow CDC guidelines on proper disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas.

  1. Normal routine cleaning with soap and water will decrease how much of the virus is on surfaces and objects, which reduces the risk of exposure.
  2. Disinfection using EPA-approved disinfectants against COVID-19 can also help reduce the risk.  Frequent disinfection of surfaces and objects touched by multiple people is important.
  3. When EPA-approved disinfectants are not available, alternative disinfectants can be used (for example, 1/3 cup of bleach added to 1 gallon of water, or 70% alcohol solutions). Do not mix bleach or other cleaning and disinfection products together. This can cause fumes that may be very dangerous to breathe in. Bleach solutions will be effective for disinfection up to 24 hours. Keep all disinfectants out of the reach of children.

Returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic may not feel like normal – at least for a while. But having safety plans – and making sure schools have the resources needed to follow them –​ can help protect students, teachers, staff, and families. ​