A big question many parents have right now is how and when schools can reopen while keeping kids safe from COVID-19. The answer is a bit complicated.
It will likely depend on where your family lives. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises schools to work with local and state health departments to decide how and when students can safely return to classrooms.
What schools need to do to reopen safely
There are a number of steps schools need to take to make sure students, staff, families, and communities stay safe once they reopen. Reopening will be dependent on a decrease in the number of
COVID-19 infections at the local and national levels. Plans for school re-opening include:
Cleaning and disinfecting. Schools must be prepared to follow
CDC guidelines on proper disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas.
Masks. Schools will need to have rules in place about the use of
cloth face coverings, including who will need to wear them and when throughout the school day.
Personal contact. How will schools limit close physical contact between students? This may mean having fewer students and staff in a given classroom. There may also need to be changes to how things like performing arts, sporting events, trainings, and practice sessions are held.
Classrooms. Are there any plans in place to limit student interaction beyond the classroom? For example, it may be safer to have:
teachers move between classrooms, rather than having students fill the hallways during passing periods.
students eat lunches at their desks instead of in crowded lunchrooms.
Screening. Schools will need to have a way to screen students, teachers, and staff for signs of illness. They will also need to have a room set aside to isolate anyone who becomes ill during the school day.
COVID-19 tests. Are they readily available in the community? State and local health departments are prepared to monitor new infections and trace exposures, letting people know when they may have been exposed to the virus.
Even with these safety plans in place, some students with high-risk
medical conditions may need to continue distance learning. Schools should also prepare to close again and switch to distance learning if there are new waves of COVID-19 infection.
A phased approach to reopening
Schools may need to think about re-opening in phases. This could include starting back with reduced hours by grade level, for example. Schools can also look at reworking schedules so there will be fewer students in school at the same time.
In addition to having plans in place to keep students safe, there are other factors that school communities need to address:
Pressure to catch up. It's important to recognize that students may not have gained as much from distance learning as in-person instruction. In addition, some students may not have had access to computers and WiFi. Unrealistic academic expectations can add to an already stressful time for students and educators. While trying to make up lost progress, it's also important that schools continue to balance core subjects with physical education and other learning experiences.
Students with disabilities. The impact of schools being closed may be greater for students with disabilities. They may have a difficult time transitioning back to school after missing out on instruction time as well as school-based services such as occupational, physical and
speech-language therapy and mental health support counseling. The AAP recommends reviewing the needs of each child with an
Individual Education Program before they return to school, and starting services even if they are done virtually.
Annual physicals. The AAP encourages families to continue to
see their pediatrician for checkups and immunizations, even during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted some pediatric practices. School districts may need to consider changing or extending the required
start-of-school medical paperwork for families. However, immunizations should be the top priority. Although sporting events, practices, and training sessions may be limited in many areas, preparticipation physical examinations also should take place.
Mental health. Mental health support should be available to all students to help them cope with
stress from the pandemic and be ready to learn. Students may be
grieving the loss of loved ones from the virus, as well as
missed experiences and the stress of financial struggles at home. School mental health professionals can provide critical support, and teachers and staff can be trained on how to talk with and support students who show signs of anxiety or distress. Students with
suicidal thoughts or behavior should be referred for additional services.
Nutrition. Many schools have continued to provide nutritious meals to families during the pandemic. This will continue to be important especially to families facing job and business loss. The United States Department of Agriculture has given school districts with meal programs more flexibility during the pandemic. They can offer meal service outside of settings like cafeterias, for example, and provide food for several days of meals at once.
It's important for schools to reopen as soon as they can while keeping families safe. Doing well in school is tied to a student's long-term health and wellbeing.
Falling behind can affect how well a student does going forward. Schools also provide important health and nutrition services that some students don't have access to when they're closed.
Returning to school probably won't mean returning to normal – at least for a while. But schools can start now to put plans in place so they can open their doors again while taking steps to keep students, staff, and families safe.