How to safely return to school

By The Health News Team | August 17, 2020
Boy walking to school with face mask

Parents, teachers and students were disappointed when schools closed their campuses in early spring 2020 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Now, as the summer break draws to a close, the same groups are wondering how and when — even if — students can safely return to in-person learning at schools across the country.
Dr. Abisola Olulade, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, knows that everyone misses the way things were, when COVID-19 wasn’t affecting every area of our lives. “There’s an understandable eagerness to go back to normal,” she says.

However, the path to normalcy in schools will be paved with several precautions that might feel very abnormal. And everyone from school administrators and staff to parents and students must be on board with all of the safety measures if back-to-school plans are to work.

Guidelines for a safe return

Schools play an important role in communities and in supporting the whole child in ways far beyond just their education, including emotional and psychological support, food programs, special education services, health programs and after-school care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed guidelines for school administrators to protect the health, safety and well-being of children and their community members if they plan to return to on-campus learning. The agency looked at how COVID-19 affects children, how it is transmitted, and what can be done to prepare for a safe return and minimize the impact of potential closures if cases surge.

“Kids are not immune to COVID-19,” Dr. Olulade says. “While they tend to be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests children may be able to transmit the virus. The current assumption is that they can possibly transmit this to other children, teachers, staff members and family members. We also need to recognize that a small number of children can develop severe complications from the disease when considering a return to in-person learning.”

The CDC offers guidance on changes to be made to schools’ policies and operations to get students, teachers and school staff safely back on campus. These include social distancing, healthy hygiene habits, cleaning and disinfection, use of face coverings, improving ventilation and water systems, altering food service, staggering student schedules and modifying campus space use. Schools must also plan for student, staff and teacher absences and the potential need to return to distance learning if the risk of COVID-19 spread becomes too high.

Additional steps schools will need to take for a safe return include:

  • Coordinating with local public health officials to stay informed about the status of COVID-19 transmission in the community in order to make decisions about the types and level of mitigation strategies to implement and whether on-campus learning is allowed within current public health orders.

  • Creating cohorts, or “pods,” of students and teachers that stay together throughout the school day, creating block schedules, or separating students by grade to minimize exposure for students, teachers and staff across the school environment.

  • Preparing for COVID-19 cases and exposure in their facilities and having a plan in place for maintaining academic instruction and ensuring students have access to services.

  • Regularly communicating with students, families, teachers and staff about expectations of each — at home and at school — for a safe return to school as well as sharing details about on-campus mitigation efforts, the status of COVID-19 cases in the school and community, and options for virtual learning if COVID-19 cases are identified among the school community.

The role of families
Students and parents will also be instrumental in ensuring a return to campus is successful. Students will be expected to practice preventive measures, such as sanitizing hands often, maintaining physical distance from others and wearing a face covering. And parents will be asked to emphasize and model these healthy behaviors at home as well.

“Children really do mimic our behavior,” Dr. Olulade says. “Parents must take charge and talk to them about why the precautions are necessary.”

The CDC reports that parents should also do the following:

  • Consider the full spectrum of risks related to in-person learning, including whether the student or other household members are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

  • Each morning, check their child for signs of illness. If they have a temperature of 100.4° F or higher, a sore throat, cough, diarrhea, severe headache, vomiting, body aches or other signs of illness, do not send them to school.

  • If their child has had close contact to someone with COVID-19, do not send them to school; follow guidance on what to do when someone in your home has been exposed to COVID-19.

  • Make sure their child is up to date with all recommended vaccines, including the flu vaccine.

  • Along with washing hands often, wearing a face covering and social distancing, talk to their child about additional precautions to take at school, such as avoiding sharing water bottles, devices, writing instruments, books and other objects.

  • Familiarize themselves with the school’s plan for how they will communicate with families when a positive case or exposure to someone with COVID-19 is identified and the precautionary steps that will follow.

  • Plan for possible school closures or periods of quarantine if transmission is increasing in their community, multiple children or staff test positive for COVID-19, or their child comes into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, this is a time of great uncertainty with lots of change, and it’s important to accept that and take things one day at a time,” Dr. Olulade says. “We have to put the health and safety of everyone involved first and continue to talk about the return to school constructively as a community, validate everyone’s concerns, and let the science and data guide us. Remember, we’re all in this together.”

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