With the fall semester approaching, school districts, administrators, teachers, and parents are faced with many questions. Is it safe to reopen schools? What are the implications of remaining closed? What are the logistics involved if schools do reopen? What safety protocols will teachers and students need to observe? As decisions regarding schools are being made, it is important to consider the full scope of the benefits and risks associated with reopening schools and how to navigate those risks by taking the necessary precautions.
Considerations for Reopening Schools
According to data from the CDC, children are far less likely to become seriously ill from the coronavirus than adults — however, the risk still exists. One major concern that comes with COVID-19 is its transmission. American schools are often crowded, indoor spaces with poor ventilation, which presents opportunities for the airborne virus to spread easily. This is the reason schools were closed in mid-March — to limit the spread of the virus. Yet, there is evidence that prolonged closures of schools have social, emotional, behavioral, economic, and academic impacts on children, both in the short and long-term.
In order to prevent these adverse effects — while protecting students and faculty from the coronavirus — schools must implement safety precautions if they reopen. According to recent analyses, measures like social distancing have a significant containment effect of the virus, showing that schools could potentially reopen if the right regulations are in place. The risks of reopening will depend on how well schools are able to institute and uphold mitigation measures. As the fall semester approaches, the CDC recommends that schools consider the following recommendations.
- Social distancing
- Limit activities or participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible.
- Masks/face coverings.
- Hand hygiene (sanitizers and regular hand washing).
- Cohorting/limiting class sizes/staggering attendance.
- Approach cohorting to fit the needs of the school/district and community. This can be done by keeping students in class pods, stagger when students return to school facility, having the same teacher stay with the same group of students.
- Frequent disinfection and sanitization of regularly touched surfaces.
Cases of Reopening Schools From Abroad
Though no other nation has attempted to send children back to school with the virus at levels comparable to America’s, we can still learn from how other countries approach the reopening of their schools. So far, countries that imposed requirements before schools reopened — like social distancing and limits on class sizes — have not seen a surge in coronavirus cases.
According to the New York Times, Norway and Denmark both reopened schools in April, but initially for younger children only (high schools were closed until later). They increased sanitation procedures, maintained limited class sizes, spaced out desks, and kept children in small groups at recess. Neither country has seen a significant increase in cases. In contrast, Israel saw an increase in coronavirus cases and outbreaks after it reopened schools in early May, and lifted limits on class sizes a few weeks later.
Other countries, such as China, Denmark, Norway, Singapore, and Taiwan all required temperature checks upon entry at schools. Additionally, in a report by the University of Washington, a number of countries require face masks for students and/or staff in schools, with leniency for the lower age limit for face mask requirements.
What Schools Can Do
Overall, there are risks involved in resuming in-person instruction and more research and evaluation are needed to say what methods of mitigation and prevention are the most effective. The CDC recommends that K-12 schools prepare by coordinating with local public health officials to make decisions about school operations and prepare for potential COVID-19 cases by establishing the necessary precautions and guidelines for students and faculty to follow. For reference, North Carolina has developed a playbook of recommendations for schools to help inform and educate teachers, students, and their families as to how to safely prepare themselves.
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