With schools in most states officially shuttered through the end of the school year, governors and education leaders are now turning their attention to the next huge hurdle: How exactly to open schools back up in the fall.

The White House guidelines for reopening the economy released in April specify that the decision to reopen schools should be made at the state and local levels, and should only proceed after certain "gating criteria" have been met in terms of cases, hospital capacity and testing. This week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released both a "decision tree" tool to help schools decide when and whether to reopen, as well as a detailed set of recommended guidelines for maintaining the health of students and staff.

Taken together, these two sets of recommendations from the CDC paint a clearer picture of what school might be like when it reopens next academic year. Here's what they call for.

Here's what the CDC's official guidelines for school reopenings recommend.

Before reopening school:

  • Ensure that reopening is in line with local and state health guidelines.
  • Have practices and guidelines in place to protect students and staff who are especially at risk.
  • Be prepared to screen students and staff for symptoms and exposure history upon arrival.
Health and safety practices to put in place as part of reopening school:

  • Training staff and teachers to prevent transmission of the virus and to recognize signs of illness.
  • Promoting hand washing and healthy hygiene practices
  • "Intensifying" cleaning, disinfection and ventilation
  • Employees wearing cloth masks, "as feasible"
  • Maintaining social distancing by increasing spacing and creating small groups that don't intermix

The CDC decision tree for reopening schools also calls for ongoing monitoring as well as frequent communication with parents and the local community.

CDC recommendations for schools also include these suggestions for preventing the spread of the virus:

Throughout the school:

  • Cloth face coverings for staff, teachers and older students
  • Frequent hand-washing for all students and staff
  • Posting signs and messages about the importance of safe hygiene practices
  • Supplying the school with soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, no-touch trash cans and disinfecting wipes.
  • Daily deep cleaning and disinfection, especially of high-touch areas
  • Putting physical barriers and reminders in place, such as a plastic shield at the reception desk and floor markings showing safe distancing in halls, lines and other areas
  • Spreading out children on buses
  • Closing cafeterias and playgrounds
In the classroom:

  • Grouping students and staff into small, consistent clusters to minimize exposure, and restricting mixing of groups
  • Storing children's backpacks and other belongings separately
  • Having children bring their own breakfasts and lunches as feasible, or serving individually plated meals in classrooms
  • Avoiding sharing of books, supplies or other learning materials
  • Spacing desks 6 feet apart
  • Turning desks to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other)
  • Seating students on only one side of tables, spaced apart
  • Virtual-only field trips and extracurricular activities

On a state or local level, schools may also put in place additional safety measures for reopening, such as:

Staggered or alternating schedules. California Governor Gavin Newsom said schools in his state might implement staggered schedules, with some students attending school in the mornings and others in the afternoon. Officials in other states, including Edie Sharp, NYC's chief of staff for city schools, have proposed a staggered or alternate-day attendance model, where half the students attend school while the other half learns from home, and then the next day the groups swap.

Partial start dates. In Washington, DC, officials are considering bringing back the youngest and the oldest students earlier, in order to keep graduation dates on schedule and help early learners adjust to school.

Scaled-back recess and PE. As important as physical activity is for kids, activities like recess that involve large groups of children would have to be "reformed," as Gov. Newsom acknowledged in a press briefing.

One-way hallways. Just as grocery stores have adopted one-way aisles to control traffic flow and minimize contact points, schools might adopt similar measures for crowded hallways.

Extra school days. School officials in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia—as well as in other districts across the country—are weighing adjusting next year's school schedule to provide additional days for catch-up instruction.

Regular sanitization and deep cleaning of school buildings and grounds. Governor Newsom said that "deep sanitation" and "massive deep cleaning," would be needed in schools and beyond, including disinfecting playgrounds, parks, swings, benches and sidewalks.

If this all sounds complicated and hard to enforce, you're right—it is.

But reopening schools is an important problem to solve. Working parents, who make up over 40% of the labor force, will be unable to participate fully in the reopening of the U.S. economy without some kind of viable alternative for school, after-school programs and childcare.

Millions of children from food-insecure households rely on school meals, and hundreds of thousands of homeless children enrolled in public schools across the country depend on the safe space that school provides. The transition to remote learning has put tremendous pressure on families. Last but certainly not least, children are sorely missing the structure, socialization and professional instruction they get at school.

Without a vaccine or a reliable antibody test, however, parents and educators are concerned about sending children, teachers and staff back into school buildings, where they may be exposed to infection or carry the virus back to vulnerable family members at home.

"We need to get our kids back to school, we need to get our kids educated, and we need to deal with kids' mental health and that of their parents," California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a recent press briefing. "But we need to do it in a safe way, so that kids are not going to school, getting infected, and coming back home and infecting Grandma and Grandpa. So we have to be very, very vigilant in that respect."

While parents—and kids—are probably fantasizing about the return to school later this year, it won't be just the same as we remember it. Finding a way to educate and care for children while protecting the safety of students, teachers, parents and staff has to be the top priority.

This post has been updated.

Renee Leanna/Facebook

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