As the nation battles the COVID-19 pandemic, school administrators are dealing with one of the toughest challenges they have ever faced: how to balance expected learning outcomes with the health and safety concerns of students, their families and the population.
It became clear in an interview between Dana Bash and then Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that, indeed, the burden would fall to individual school districts and administrators as they prepared to re-open in the fall of 2020, rather than the nation's top education officials. When asked if there was a top-down plan in place that schools could follow, Devos replied, "Schools should do what's right, on the ground, at that time for their students and for their situation. There is no one uniform approach that we can take, or should take, nationwide."
While education policy and procedure for the pandemic has shifted since, if COVID-19 decisions fall to school administrators, they must be prepared for future pandemics and other public health crises. Leadership must be ready to re-envision the school environment to facilitate effective communication and learning legally, ethically and medically aligned with all stakeholders' concerns. They must have concrete plans grounded in science to minimize COVID-19's spread and prevent further risk when students do become sick. These strategies may involve distance learning, in-person schooling and hybrid models depending on local case counts and outbreaks.
Since COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus that spreads through airborne transmission of respiratory droplets, much of what school leaders are implementing effectively today will inform future administrators dealing with similar scenarios. Here are the measures that are currently in place for when students are present for in-person schooling:
- Collaborating with Local and State Health Officials
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that plan "implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable and tailored to the needs of each community." School administrators must collaborate with state and local health officials to understand local risk levels and ensure compliance with all health and safety laws, rules and regulations.
The CDC also recommends that school nurses, parents, caregivers, student leaders, community members and other relevant parties participate. The World Health Organization (WHO) further suggests that administrators work with public officials to guarantee that schools are never used as shelters, treatment units or locations for meetings or community events.
- Safe Distancing
Everyone is familiar with the six-feet rule of separation, but school administrators follow a complex protocol that may include any of the following practices:
- Staggering beginning and ends of school days
- Using physical barriers to create one-way traffic
- Using outdoor spaces when possible
- Not holding assemblies and other events that create crowded conditions
- Keeping students' desks at least six feet apart and facing in the same direction, with plexiglass shields if possible
- Create six feet of distancing in hallways and on school busses
The CDC encourages ventilation system upgrades or improvements to increase the delivery of clean air and dilute contaminants. HVAC consultants should be brought in to recommend systems and filters, and the CDC provides some of these in its Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic pamphlet. An example is the use of ultraviolet germicidal irradiation to inactivate airborne virus particles. Ventilation during the pandemic also includes opening windows and doors for fresh air to generate air movement.
- Mask Wearing
Masks are meant to protect other people in case the wearer is unknowingly infected. The CDC recommends that school personnel continue to remind students who can wear masks (there are exceptions for specific health issues and children younger than two years old) to keep them on, over the mouth and nose with no gaps. Students should also be reminded not to touch their masks.
- Cleaning and Disinfection
Frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected daily or as much as possible. This includes vehicles, shared objects like gyms, art supplies and classroom surfaces. Administrators should develop a routine cleaning and disinfection schedule, delegate specific responsibilities and ensure they are carried out.
- Hand Hygiene and Respiratory Etiquette
The CDC recommends that students be advised to wash their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; adults should monitor compliance. Students should carry tissues to cover coughs and sneezes and throw tissues in the trash and wash hands afterward. Hand sanitizing stations should be made readily available with 60% alcohol solutions, to further ensure clean hands.
Current vaccines will likely bring the country to herd immunity, but the process will be gradual and potentially slow depending on the rollout organization. School administrators will work with local and state health officials to determine which measures can be relaxed as local population risks diminish. It is likely that the increased public awareness of viruses, including the flu, will result in some degree of continued vigilance concerning cleanliness and sanitization.
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