5 COVID-19 Safety Measures K-12 Schools Should Consider for a ‘Safe’ Reentry

551 million; that is how many U.S. students have been affected by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Education week. So far, 46 states have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year. As prepared for emergencies as K-12 schools aim to be, none could have been ready for a global health pandemic as devastating and fast-moving as the spread of COVID-19 in 2020.

We applaud the heroic, tireless efforts of all U.S. educators, administrators, legislators, community partners, and homeschooling parents being made in the interest of the safety and wellbeing of K-12 students. Like we always say at Protecting our Students: children are priceless.

Still, not knowing when widespread testing or vaccinations will be made available, it is difficult for administrators to focus. Schools are being pulled in every direction right now. Teachers are still learning how to manage the uncharted waters of virtual learning. Then, there’s the puzzle of summer learning. What about fall?

Together, we are left wondering: when will it be safe for K-12 schools to reopen? How will we reopen? The CDC has yet to give clear guidance on school reentry just yet.

For now, here are 5 key safety measures K-12 schools should consider for a ‘safe’ reentry… whenever that will be.

#1: Upgraded Health and Hygiene Measures
So far, it is believed that children appear to be less susceptible to the coronavirus than adults. However, it is still too early to say. It is possible that many minors may be asymptomatically spreading the coronavirus, so we need to stay cautious.

Upgraded health and hygiene measures should be at the forefront of COVID-19 safety measures for K-12 school reopenings. These will include wearing masks, temperature checks, hand-washing, frequent sanitization, and social distancing rules.

This is not only to ensure the safety of students slowing the spread of COVID-19 but of school staff, as well. NPR states, “The New York City Department of Education has reported that at least 50 employees have died in recent weeks due to suspected or confirmed cases of the coronavirus.”

It is anticipated that school staff will continue to petition the federal government for health and hygiene reentry support. The United Federation of Teachers union, representing more than 140,000 school employees, has started an online petition addressed to the federal government demanding the following requirements to be met for schools reopenings:

● Widespread access to coronavirus testing to regularly check that people are negative or have immunity
● A process for checking the temperature of everyone who enters a school building
● Rigorous cleaning protocols and personal protective gear in every school building
● An exhaustive tracing procedure that would track down and isolate those who have had close contact with a student or staff member who tests positive for the virus
As we learn more about the novel coronavirus and its mutations, stricter health and hygiene measures are predicted.

#2: Bolstering Mental Health Support
Upon reentry, the mental health of K-12 should be as serious of a concern as the student’s physical health. Between closed schools, social isolation, food scarcity, and parental unemployment, the coronavirus pandemic has devastated students’ support systems as a traumatic result.

In years past, social and emotional learning has become increasingly popular. However, the vast majority of time and resources have gone to students with disabilities – not the general population. No more. All U.S. K-12 students are enduring an unprecedented collective trauma that will summon schools to bolster up equitable mental health support for all. Additional crisis counseling and social work services for students, self-care plans for staff, and teacher training on the Psychological First Aid model will be critical to reducing burnout and vicarious trauma.

If students do not have the additional social and emotional support they need to survive coronavirus trauma, we could witness some terrifying ramifications. One that is particularly close to the heart of Protecting Our Students (POS) is school shootings. We know school security is a complex issue with no simple, single solution. That’s why POS is committed to supporting gun safety policy standardization. We are working hard to continue to develop a unified national K-12 school security program that will deliver our free standardized safety programs to every K-12 student across the nation.

See how you can help prevent another crisis.

#3: Smaller Classrooms, Staggered Scheduling
Older students may return to schools before younger students. That’s what China and Germany have done in recent days, allowing students back in their final years of middle and high school.

On the other hand, Denmark reopened its daycares and primary schools first. Some argue that it might make sense for younger students to go first because they are more likely to be within walking distance, and have one main classroom teacher. However, younger children are more likely to have difficulty complying with social distancing measures than older students.

In general, smaller classrooms of fewer than 12 students with desks at least 6-feet apart seem to be reasonable measures to enforce. Schools should also initially consider various student staggering methods. These include:

● Morning groups vs. afternoon groups
● Monday/Wednesday vs. Tuesday/Thursday groups
● One day on, one day off
● In-residence classes every other week
● Staggered arrival and dismissal times
● Distance learning for special programs
● And more

#4: A Hybrid of Virtual and Face-to-Face Education
It will be impossible to open schools without some type of hybrid option. Students who test positive — and all who have been in close contact with those students, including classmates, teachers, and administrators — will need to self-quarantine. Therefore, there will need to be remote learning options already prepared, heading into the 2020-2021 school year.

In addition, a hybrid of virtual learning and face-to-face education is expected for many. This way, the transition is easier for students who will have been under stay-at-home orders for months. It eases the shock. Secondly, it is anticipated that many families will feel nervous about heading back to school, and there will be an increase in absences. A hybrid design may decrease those numbers and keep more students academically on track. Certainly, parents will need increasing support in a hybrid format as they have been – and likely will continue to be – assuming responsibility for their children’s virtual education.

Finally, a hybrid option will better account for the possibility of a “second wave.” Even if K-12 schools reopen in the fall, further outbreaks – especially as the flu season approaches – could force closures. Schools should be prepared for a hybrid alternative, even if it is not ideal or expected.

#5: Limiting of Non-Essential Large Gatherings
The CDC recommends during the reopening phase, the limitation of all large non-essential gatherings. This includes assemblies, spirit nights, field days, athletic events, club meetings, and more. If schools are unsure about which events should be canceled, it is recommended that they speak with local health officials to help determine the best approach.

Though, large gathering limitations will probably not be made clear until fall approaches. Large gathering limitations will likely be most dependent on local levels of COVID-19 transmission. Until there is more widespread testing, it is doubtful that large gatherings will be allowed. We expect to continue to see an increase in Livestream events for school gatherings.

Other Questions to Consider
The following list includes questions for K-12 school officials to consider, according to the President of National School Safety and Security Services:

● Will school bus drivers greet students at their stops wearing masks and offering on-board hand sanitizer dispensers?
● How will school nurses deal with children having psychosomatic health episodes?
● Will schools be prepared to record and track mass illness reports and absences to detect potential clusters of health concerns?
● Are the schools adequately staffed with school health professionals to manage these needs?
● How will principals manage a large number of teacher absences for those who are afraid to return the first week of school?
● Will there be enough substitute teachers?
● What will students be told when their favorite school police officer abruptly retired, died, or chose not to return to their jobs as school-based officers?
● How will these issues be communicated to parents?

Planning For a ‘Safe’ K-12 Reentry… Now
With families, teachers, and all academic personnel, we anxiously wait for the day when K-12 schools will reopen, knowing it will not be an easy road. School, as we knew it, will never be the same again.

Yet, we are hopeful that this global pandemic will cause K-12 schools to be healthier and safer than ever. A ‘safe’ K-12 reentry must take into account various possibilities for levels of COVID-19 transmission, ongoing government regulations, and the input of local communities to create strategic safety plans. There is no one-size-fits-all school reentry – we are learning that on a global scale. We will need to be diligent in remaining evidence-based, adaptable, and empathetic.

Schools will play a vital role in preventing the “second wave” of COVID-19 in our communities.

Learn more about the coronavirus and its potential transmission to students, as well as the additional steps K-12 schools are taking in the U.S. to prevent its spread.