For older students who are able to tele-school—high schoolers and some middle schoolers—distance learning may be a safer option, unless there is little or no virus circulating in the community.
Third, keep the virus out. Schools should forbid nonessential visits and require everyone who enters the school—not only students and staff but also parents, delivery people, and maintenance workers—to wash their hands (or apply hand sanitizer) and wear a face mask. Families must understand that their children should not go to school when sick. Class attendance policies should be revised to reflect the urgency of staying home when ill, and absences should not require a doctor’s note. Every person who works at a school, including staff members, contractors, and maintenance workers, must be given paid sick leave. Paid sick leave has been demonstrated to significantly reduce the risk of ill people continuing to work and spreading infection to others.
Fourth, wear a mask. Students, teachers, and staff should all wear masks throughout the school day, although this may be challenging for younger children. Consider adopting reward systems to encourage mask wearing and hand-washing.
Fifth, reduce mixing among students and staff. Divide students into smaller cohorts, or pods, that stay together throughout the day, rather than mixing and re-forming different class units. Remaining primarily within a smaller unit reduces the risk of extensive disease spread and makes contact tracing easier if there are cases. Staff break rooms should be closed: In hospitals, many employees became infected while socializing with other employees.
Sixth, reduce occupancy, especially indoors. Classrooms may need to operate at reduced capacity to provide increased physical distance. Schools can alleviate overcrowding by moving to a split-shift schedule (incorporating morning and afternoon sessions) or by alternating students between in-person and remote learning. Classrooms can be rearranged to reduce transmission, such as by having desks facing the same direction. If conditions allow, holding class outdoors is safer.
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Seventh, implement new health and safety protocols, such as more frequent and thorough cleaning and disinfecting, including of buses. Hand-washing and sanitizing stations should be installed; their use should be required. There will need to be more cleaning during the day, when classes are in session, as well as at the end of the day. That will require safe usage and storage of cleaning products, to protect children from exposure. Sharing of classroom supplies and other items should also be limited; when sharing is necessary, equipment should be disinfected after each use.
Eighth, prepare for cases. Despite precautions, there will inevitably be coronavirus cases at schools. Schools must function as if the virus could arrive at any moment, and operate so that they can reduce transmission and provide ongoing education when it occurs. Responding well can prevent outbreaks; detailed and rehearsed protocols will enhance readiness. Daily temperature and symptom checks are advisable. Students or staff members who become sick must stay home in isolation until they have met the CDC’s criteria to return. All contacts of new cases must be traced and quarantined. Any classroom with a reported case will need to be thoroughly disinfected and, if necessary, closed temporarily. Schools should also prepare to close if necessary because of outbreaks or explosive spread in the community.
Reopening schools will not be easy, but if we all work together to stop the virus, we can succeed. Our children’s future depends on it.