Public health experts, elected officials and education leaders are turning their attention to the huge hurdle of how exactly to open schools back up in the fall.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement in support of getting kids back in school buildings for in-person instruction. A full 70% of epidemiologists and infectious disease experts recently polled said they’d send their own kids back to school by this fall. And a growing number of states from New Jersey to Ohio to Washington have declared their goal of reopening schools for in-person instruction for the next school year. Even in New York City, formerly the epicenter of the virus, plans have been announced to get kids back into school buildings this September, if cases and hospitalizations remain controlled.
We all know by now that school will look different when it reopens. The question is, how different—and the answer is likely to vary widely depending on where you live, how active the virus is in your area and how your school district applies recommendations for cleaning, social distancing, testing and responding to illness.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released a detailed set of recommendations for maintaining the health of students and staff when schools reopen. The AAP has issued its own set of safety guidelines for schools to consider, which include specific guidance for different age groups and grade levels. In its statement, the AAP emphasized that the benefits of opening schools—in-person instruction, socialization, meals and health services—outweigh the safety risks and educational losses of keeping schools closed.
Taken together, these two sets of recommendations paint a clearer picture of what school might be like when it reopens next academic year. Here’s what they call for, and how school systems are responding.
Here’s what official guidelines for school reopenings recommend.
Federal guidelines for reopening 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 local cases, hospital capacity and testing. Before reopening school, local officials should:
- 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.
In addition, the CDC recommends these health and safety practices be 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 also calls for ongoing monitoring and 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:
- Masks: Cloth face coverings for staff, teachers and older students
- Hand-washing: Frequent hand-washing for all students and staff
- Signage: Posting signs and messages about the importance of safe hygiene practices
- Extra equipment: Supplying the school with soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, no-touch trash cans and disinfecting wipes.
- Extra cleaning: Daily deep cleaning and disinfection, especially of high-touch areas
- Physical barriers and reminders: Such as a plastic shield at the reception desk and floor markings showing safe distancing in halls, lines and other areas
- Maintaining spacing on transportation to and from school: Including spreading out children on buses
- Minimizing use of shared areas: Closing cafeterias and playgrounds
In the classroom:
- Cohorts: Grouping students and staff into small, consistent clusters to minimize exposure, and restricting mixing of groups
- Minimizing shared storage: Storing children’s backpacks and other belongings separately
- Meals in classrooms: Having children bring their own breakfasts and lunches as feasible, or serving individually plated meals in classrooms
- Minimizing shared supplies: Avoiding sharing of books, supplies or other learning materials
- Maintaining spacing in classrooms: Spacing desks 6 feet apart
- Minimizing face-to-face seating: Turning desks to face in the same direction, rather than facing each other, and seating students on only one side of tables, spaced apart
- Virtual-only field trips and extracurricular activities
AAP recommendations for reopening schools add the following considerations:
- Tailoring approach by grade level: The AAP’s guidelines reinforce that different approaches and guidelines are needed for different grade levels and age groups—younger children need more in-person instruction while high schoolers can adapt more readily to remote learning; older students may be more at risk of serious illness than younger children if infected. The guidelines offer specific, high-priority recommendations tailored to different developmental ages, including suggestions for pre-kindergartners, elementary schools. and secondary schools.
- Special considerations and accommodations for vulnerable and at-risk children: The AAP urges schools to create plans that reflect a wide diversity of backgrounds, languages and special needs, “especially for our vulnerable populations, including those who are medically fragile, live in poverty, have developmental challenges, or have special health care needs or disabilities, with the goal of safe return to school.”
- On-site health services for students and staff: When students return, “schools should anticipate and be prepared to address a wide range of mental health needs of children and staff,” says the AAP. In addition, schools will need on-site health centers that are equipped to respond safely to potential illness, including hospital-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) for school health staff.
On a state or local level, schools may also put in place additional safety measures for reopening, such as:
Staggered or alternating schedules. A number of states have decided on staggered schedules, with some students attending school in the mornings and others in the afternoon. Officials in other states 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. In some schools, schedules may alternate between in-person and remote instruction on a weekly or bi-weekly basis depending on how many students can be physically accommodated in the building at once.
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 California Governor Gavin 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, 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.