As more people are able to get COVID-19 vaccines, there's hope that everyday life, including school, may soon get back to normal.
Vaccines will not be available for most students this school year. However, research shows that reopening schools for in-person learning does not seem to significantly increase community transmission of the virus. It depends on whether schools are able to follow COVID-19 public health guidance, though.
All schools should aim to have students attend school in person, which is how they learn best. This means working with public health officials to get community spread of the virus under control. And then, once a school can reopen for in-person learning, layers of safety measures can help keep students, teachers, and staff safe.
Why in-person school is best—when it is safe
Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents. In addition to reading, writing and math, students learn social and emotional skills, get exercise, and have access to mental health and other support services. For many children and adolescents, schools are safe, stimulating, and enriching places to be while parents or guardians are working. For many families, schools are where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet, and other vital services.
The pandemic has been especially hard for Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American/Alaska native children and adolescents and families living in poverty. One in 5 teens cannot complete schoolwork at home because they do not have a computer or internet connection. Whether learning plans are in person or virtual right now, schools need funding so they can provide safe and effective education for all students.
What schools can do
To prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, there are a number of safety steps schools should take. No single one will completely eliminate COVID-19 risk, but together they can greatly reduce it. Key steps include:
Face masks. All adults and all children over age 2 years and all adults should wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth to help stop the spread of the virus. When they fit well and are worn correctly and consistently, face masks are effective and safe to wear for long periods of time such as during the school day. The vast majority of children, even those with medical conditions, are able to safely and effectively wear face masks with practice, support and role-modeling by adults
Physical distancing. Based on the latest evidence and CDC guidance, younger students should remain at least 3 feet apart from each while also wearing face masks at school. However, middle and high school students in areas with high rates of COVID-19 infections should stay at least 6 feet apart--especially if they aren't able to stay in small groups throughout the school day. Teachers and staff also should remain 6 feet apart from students and each other, limit in-person meetings, and avoid areas such as staff lounges.
When possible, schools should use outdoor spaces and unused spaces for instruction and meals to help with distancing. Activities like singing, band and exercising, for example, are safest outdoors and spread out.
Classroom routines. To help limit student interaction outside the classroom, schools should consider:
Having teachers move between classrooms, if possible, rather than having students fill the hallways during passing periods. Block schedules (fewer classes in a given day and electives in shorter time periods) can help limit cross-over of students and teachers.
Allowing students to eat lunches at their desks or in small groups outdoors instead of in crowded lunchrooms. Because of the need to remove face masks while eating, students should be six feet apart during lunch.
Leaving classroom doors open to help reduce high touch surfaces such as doorknobs.
When the weather and air quality allow it, open windows and doors to improve air circulation. Strategically located fans, promoting circulation or decrease in stagnant air, can be utilized to enhance outdoor air circulation.
Testing & temperature checks. Testing only shows whether a person is infected at that specific moment in time and may not be useful in preventing outbreaks in school communities. In addition, testing all students in a school for active SARS-CoV-2 infection may not be possible for many schools. Diagnostic testing is recommended when someone has COVID-19 symptoms, or recent known or suspected exposure to the virus. The CDC recommends only weekly screening of teachers and school staff, and screening of students in communities with higher levels of COVID-19 cases.
Taking students' temperatures at school may not be feasible. However, families should monitor students' health and keep them home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees F or greater or any signs of illness.
Exposure. Children appear less likely than adults to have symptoms and severe illness from COVID-19. Early studies also suggest those under age 10 may be less likely to be infected with and spread the infection. But schools still need to plan for exposures.
If a student or staff member has close contact with someone with known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, they should quarantine as recommended by local public health officials unless they are fully vaccinated. A person is known to be infected if they have a confirmed infection or illness consistent with COVID-19. Quarantine is typically at least 10 days from the last exposure or 7 days from last exposure with a negative test at least 5 days after exposure. Close contact means being within 6 feet of the person for a total of at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.
Symptoms at school. School nurses should take the temperature of anyone who feels ill during the school day. There should be a specific area to separate or isolate students who don't feel well. To stay safe, school nurses should use PPE (personal protective equipment) such as N95 masks, surgical masks, gloves, and face shields.
Cleaning, disinfecting & hygiene. Schools should follow CDC guidelines on proper disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas. Students and staff should be encouraged to wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer regularly.
Ventilation. Schools should improve air flow as much as possible by opening windows and doors. Child-proof fans can help improve ventilation and blow potentially contaminated air out.
Buses, hallways and playgrounds
Since these are often crowded spaces, schools can:
Give bus riders assigned seats and require them to wear a face masks while on the bus. Encourage students who have other ways to get to school, including walking or biking, to use those options.
At school, mark hallways and stairs with one-way arrows on the floor to cut down on crowding in the halls. Assign lockers by group or eliminate use of lockers.
Encourage outdoor activities such as using the playground in small groups. Playground equipment should be included in cleaning plans.
In addition to safety plans, there are other factors that school communities need to address:
Students at higher risk. Some students with chronic, high-risk medical conditions may need extra accommodations to stay safe. Talk with your pediatrician and school staff (including school nurses) to explore options for return to school, whether in person, blended, or remote.
Students with disabilities. School reopening plans may have a greater impact on students with disabilities. It may be hard to transition back to in-school learning after missing out on instruction time. Or they may have had less access to school-based services such as occupational, physical and speech-language therapy or mental health support counseling. Schools should review the needs of each child with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) before they return to school, and provide services even if virtual.
Immunizations, well-child exams. It is especially important for students to be up-to-date on their immunizations, including the flu vaccine, during the pandemic.
Behavioral health/emotional support. Your child's school should be prepared to support a wide range of mental health needs during the pandemic. This includes recognizing signs of anxiety or distress. Students may be grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19, for example, or feeling the stress of lost family income. Schools also can help students with suicidal thoughts or behavior get needed support.
Organized Activities. Sporting events, practices, and other extracurricular activities may be limited in many areas. In schools that do offer sports and other physical activities, special safety steps should be considered.
Screenings. Vision and hearing screening should continue in schools, when possible. These services help identify children in need of treatment as soon as possible and prevent interference with learning.
Nutrition. Many students receive healthy meals through school meal programs More students might be eligible for free or reduced meals than before the pandemic. Schools should provide meal programs even if the school closes or the student is sick and stays home from school.
School during the COVID-19 pandemic may not feel like normal for a while yet. But whatever form school takes, it requires everyone's support to make sure that it is healthy, safe and equitable for students, teachers, staff, and families.