Challenge Accepted

Challenge Accepted

Reopening schools while maintaining health and safety

The recent COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of children to transition to a remote learning environment – far too quickly for many districts to make adequate preparations. While some schools may have been less than fully prepared for this particular pandemic, advance crisis planning helped other schools manage the necessary transition more smoothly. Going forward, strong and effective planning for the reopening of schools need not be a surprise, and careful planning and execution can avoid any decrease in student and staff health and safety during the upcoming opening process.

On a positive note, the government is currently enacting a pandemic relief package that includes a significant funding allocation for K-12 schools nationwide in the coming months. If the proposal is implemented, this funding could supply up to $128 billion for all school districts, which comes nearly to $2,500 per student nationwide, and can be used to help school health and safety systems not only for the present reopening needs, but also for longer-term improvement projects.

In the sections below, we discuss the three distinct phases of reopening and provide suggestions on how to maximize the effectiveness of each phase. The three phases are: Preparing for Reopening, Enforce during Reopening, and Maintaining Health After Reopening. As school districts across the United States consider how to safely re-open for in-person learning and activities, school administrators can pay particular attention to mitigation strategies that can be used to help protect students, teachers, and staff prevent the spread of contagions, including the COVID-19 virus.

Preparing for Reopening

Identifying reopening benefits versus risks. The first step in preparing for reopening is to clearly identify the benefits of reopening their facilities for in-person learning and assess these benefits against the risks of opening.

Even though it’s commonly believed the risks of COVID-19 to students themselves is relatively low, reopening schools will also expose teachers who may be at greater risk (especially those who are older or compromised). These risks can also transition and contribute to higher risk for the broader community.

Districts can weigh levels of community transmission and their capacity to implement appropriate mitigation measures in schools to protect students, teachers, administrators, and other staff.

The CDC provides administrators with valuable resources. One example is their Indicators for Dynamic Decision-Making tool, available on the cdc.gov website.

Implement actions for spread prevention. The COVID-19 virus is mainly spread between people when they talk, cough, sneeze or breathe around others. Districts will need to enforce guidelines that will promote a healthy environment across all of their facilities.

Adopting actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 inside the school and out in the community can help schools reopen as safely and as quickly as possible for in-person learning.

Review, update and execute EOPs. It is highly recommended that school administrators prepare and put together an updated Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) that aligns with current CDC COVID-19 standards.

To best prepare, schools should expect that students, teachers or staff may become sick with or been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Every school should have a response plan in place for providing a clear procedure to follow when an individual tests positive for the virus.

This plan should be developed in collaboration with the guidelines set by state and local public health departments. It’s important that schools prioritize components of these guidelines that address infectious disease outbreaks and their consequences.

For more tools and resources that can be used when reviewing and revising your plans, make sure to visit The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center.

Suggestions for EOPs

Emergency Operations Plans can be complex documents, but in the case of an emergency, the effort spent creating, updating and clarifying these plans can deliver an important payoff – a rapid, coordinated response. While reviewing and updating your EOP, here are some tips that administrators have found to be helpful:

  • Develop a protocol for monitoring local COVID-19 data in your community to keep track of the level of community transmission
  • Develop and test systems to be used when sharing information with the school community (ex: school-to-parent email or texting protocols, periodic virtual meetings with parents/teachers, etc.)
  • Adopt defense strategies to promote healthy behaviors that reduce the spread of COVID-19
  • Examine the accessibility of information and resources to reduce the spread of COVID-19 - are they relevant, in plain language, and available in appropriate and accessible formats?
  • Establish clear criteria for when the school will suspend in-person learning to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 and when it will resume

Enforce During Reopening

During the reopening process, students and staff alike will have lots of questions, and will be adjusting their previously familiar routines. Here are some suggestions to maximize the effectiveness of this phase.

Promote healthy behavior. To protect our well-being and prevent schools from suspending in-person learning, students and teachers should always be practicing good hygiene upon their return. Schools can help with educational reinforcements as well as stepped-up enforcement measures to help everyone strengthen their healthy habits.

Encourage sick people to stay home. Schools can take extra steps to educate both staff and families about when they should stay home and when it’s appropriate to return to campus. Actively encourage staff and students who are sick or who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 to stay home and get tested. Reinforce that anyone who has confirmed positive test results, symptoms of COVID-19, or who has been in close contact with someone who has it should stay home and follow CDC recommendations.

Reinforce hand cleanliness and mask etiquette. School districts are in a good position to promote healthy practices. For example, staff can reinforce instructions by asking students to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, rather than their hands or just not covering up. Staff can also remind students to wash their hands frequently, while being good examples themselves. Every classroom can also provide hand sanitizer (which contains approximately 60-70% alcohol) as a supplemental measure to disrupt transmission between hand washings.

Enforce mask usage at all times. One important recommendation from the CDC regarding the current pandemic is to make sure students, teachers, and staff are consistently wearing masks that effectively cover their nose and mouth. Clear masks are available – or fabric masks with clear panels over the mouth area – if they are needed to help accommodate anyone with a hearing deficiency that relies on lip reading to aid understanding. Staff can improve mask effectiveness by reminding students (and other staff) to avoid touching their face covering or mask as much as possible. And as a backup measure, schools should have extra disposable masks available – as almost certainly they will sometimes be forgotten or may fail in some way.

Display signs and messages. Posting signs in highly-visible locations that promote everyday protective measures and describe how to stop the spread of germs is a great way to reinforce healthy practices. If there is a regular system for making announcements, such as through the school’s PA system or through home room teachers, this system can also be used to remind everyone on the simple steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Maintaining health after reopening. As students and teachers do their part, it’s crucial that school officials provide them with a clean environment that meets the highest standards. Tbese suggested changes are recommended for administrators to follow so they can further enhance the health and safety of their students, staff and community.

Implement cleaning and disinfecting policies. Clearly, it is critical that school districts clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces within the school and on school buses regularly. Many districts are developing a routine schedule for increased cleaning to be enforced for faculty members to follow.

Restrict sharing of objects. While COVID-19 is known to spread when people talk, cough, and sneeze, it is believed that contaminated objects can also be a cause of spread, as they are for other contagions. For this reason, the use of shared objects should be limited when possible, and in particular, schools should discourage sharing items that are difficult to clean. Many schools provide separate storage areas for each student’s belongings, either in the form of lockers or cubbies, or in individually labeled containers.

Execute social distancing. CDC is continuing to recommend social distancing as an important factor to combat disease spread. Schools can arrange classroom desks so they are at least 6 feet apart and facing in the same direction to minimize the chance of spread. In areas where it is difficult for person to remain at least 6 feet apart, districts may need to consider installing physical barriers.

Improve ventilation systems. Current recommendations make it clear that merely opening a window will not be sufficient to ensure indoor air quality. Districts will need to review their HVAC systems to make sure the ventilation systems are operating properly and are providing acceptable indoor air quality.

Challenge Accepted

Is your school district ready to reopen for inperson learning? Do your schools have operational strategies in place that will mitigate the risk of COVID-19, and support safe and healthy practices? We hope these suggestions will help guide you into preparing an effective reopening plan that adheres to the latest CDC guidelines.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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