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Recommendations for Reopening Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic

One of the top questions on everyone’s mind regarding moving toward a “new normal” in our community is how to safely open schools again. With COVID-19 cases continuing to climb in the United States and parents feeling the financial burden of keeping their children at home, everyone is wondering what the best plan of action is for reopening schools in the next few weeks. On a local level, the Hamilton County School Board has announced 3 learning options for the coming school year: In-person learning (contingent on the active number of COVID-19 cases at any given time), “HCS at Home”; a teacher-guided virtual learning option that links a student to their school, and a virtual learning option that is self-paced and self-guided. 

 

In their publication, “Reopening K–12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities,” The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have released a comprehensive list of recommendations to consider when developing a plan for reopening schools. Read below to learn more about these recommendations. 

 

Recommendation 1: The Decision to Reopen

Districts should weigh the health risks of reopening against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction in Fall 2020. Given the importance of in-person interaction for learning and development in younger children, school districts should prioritize reopening in-person instruction to students in elementary school. Students with special needs of all ages are also often best served by in-person instruction.

 

Recommendation 2: Precautions for Reopening

To reopen during the pandemic, schools should provide surgical masks for all teachers and staff, as well as supplies and instructions for proper hand hygiene for anyone who enters the building.

 

Recommendation 3: Partnerships Between School Districts and Public Health Officials

Local public health officials should partner with districts to:

 

  • Assess school facilities to ensure that they meet the minimum health and safety standards necessary to support COVID-19 mitigation strategies
  • Consult on proposed plans for mitigating the spread of COVID-19
  • Develop a protocol for monitoring data on the virus in order to (a) track community spread, and (b) make decisions about changes to the mitigation strategies in place
  • Participate in shared decision-making about when it is necessary to initiate the closure of schools for in-person learning
  • Design and deliver COVID-19 prevention and health promotion training to staff and students, as well as the community

 

Recommendation 4: Access to Public Health Expertise

School districts should have access to the ongoing support from public health officials that is needed to monitor and maintain the health of students and staff. In portions of the state where public health offices are short-staffed and/or lack personnel with expertise in infectious disease, special protocols should be put in place before the school year begins.

 

Recommendation 5: Decision-making Coalitions

State and local decision-makers and leaders in education should develop a team, such as a local task force, that allows for input from representatives of school staff, families, local health officials, and other community interests to inform decisions related to reopening schools. Such a cross-sector task force should:

 

  • Determine educational priorities and community values related to opening schools
  • Be explicit about financial, staffing, and facilities-related constraints
  • Create a plan for informing ongoing decisions about schools and communication
  • Liaise with communities to advocate for needed resources.

 

Recommendation 6: Equity in Reopening

In developing plans for reopening schools and implementing mitigation strategies, districts should take into account existing disparities within and across schools. Disparities in school facilities, staffing shortages, overcrowding, and remote learning infrastructures need to be examined. Within schools, plans should address these things in regards to resources for students and families. Among other considerations, these issues might include access to technology, health care services, and the ability to provide masks for students whose families might not have the means to purchase them.

 

Recommendation 7: Addressing Financial Burdens for Schools and Districts

Schools will not be able to take on the entire financial burden of implementing the mitigation strategies. Federal and state governments should provide significant resources to districts and schools to enable them to implement the suite of measures required to maintain individual and community health and allow schools to remain open. Under-resourced districts with aging facilities in poor condition will need additional financial support to bring facilities to basic health and safety standards. In addition, State Departments of Education should not penalize schools by withholding state-wide school funding formula monies for student absences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Recommendation 8: High-Priority Mitigation Strategies

Based on what is currently known about the spread of COVID-19, districts should prioritize mask wearing, provide healthy hand hygiene solutions, emphasize physical distancing, and limit large gatherings. Cleaning, ventilation, and air filtration are also important, but attending to those strategies alone will not sufficiently lower the risk of transmission. Creating small cohorts of students is another promising strategy.

 

Recommendation 9: Urgent Research

The research community should immediately conduct research that will provide the evidence needed to make informed decisions about school reopening and safe operation. The most urgent areas for inquiry are:

  • Children and transmission of COVID-19
  • The role of reopening schools in contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in communities
  • The role of airborne transmission of COVID-19
  • The effectiveness of different mitigation strategies

 

This is an excellent report from a respected neutral source. The committee emphasized common-sense precautions such as handwashing, masking, physical distancing and minimizing group activities, including lunch and recess. The report recommends surgical masks for teachers. They emphasize that online learning is ineffective for most elementary-school children and special-needs children.

Most studies suggest the virus poses minimal health risks to healthy children under age 18. The report also said that evidence for how easily children become infected or spread the virus to others, including adults such as teachers and parents, is “insufficient” to draw firm conclusions. The committee did not address the level of community transmission at which opening schools might become unsafe. Schools need to decide how and when to open schools by taking into account many factors, including COVID-19 levels in the community. There should be a solid plan in place for what to do when students or teachers become infected.

 

Here at The Lung Docs, we recommend following local guidance. We are here for your family as the school year approaches! If you have questions or concerns, give us a call at 423-710-3864.