Reopening Schools

Living (and Learning) with COVID-19: Best Practices for Reopening Schools

K-12 educators and administrators across North America have done tremendous work to keep learning going remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While the attention so far has been focused mainly on ensuring that all students continue to receive a high-quality learning experience from home, leaders are now shifting their focus to how they can safely and responsibly reopen schools.

New federal guidelines suggest that reopening schools won’t simply be a matter of flipping a switch and returning to normal. Even with a gradual approach to reopening schools, there are likely to be major changes in daily operations to prevent a recurrence of the virus or other outbreaks.

Children in winter coats and hats wearing face masks and walking on sidewalk.

On April 16, the U.S. government issued guidelines that call for a tiered approach to reopening schools and other enterprises, depending on the severity of the risk within a state or region. To qualify for Phase 1 of the plan, states and regions would have to show a downward trend in symptoms and documented cases of COVID-19 infections within a 14-day period — and hospitals would have to have a “robust testing program” in place for at-risk health care workers. In this phase, schools would remain closed if they’re already closed.

To qualify for Phase 2, a state or region would have to show that the virus hasn’t reemerged, and then schools could reopen — but social distancing should continue where possible, and gatherings of more than 50 people are discouraged. In Phase 3, employers could return to unrestricted staffing — but large public venues might have to modify their practices to allow for physical distancing.

In all phases, the plan suggests that people should continue wearing masks in public, washing hands frequently, and staying home if they feel sick.

A few days before these new guidelines were issued, California Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated that schools might have to be organized very differently to protect students, staff, and families, EdSource reports. For instance, maintaining physical distance might require schools to implement staggered schedules, with some students attending in the morning and others in the afternoon. Activities that involve large groups, such as lunch, assemblies, and recess, might have to be reformed. And “deep cleaning” would be required within all school spaces.

How Some Other Countries Have Reopened Schools

After closing down briefly in response to the novel coronavirus, schools in parts of Asia and Europe reopened earlier this spring, and their experiences could prove illuminating as North American educators consider how to reopen schools successfully in this area of the world. While there is no guarantee that these practices will prove to be effective, here’s how other countries have approached reopening their schools.

When students in Taiwan returned to school in late February after an extended winter break, they encountered a whole host of changes designed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

As they arrive at school, students now have their temperature taken — and anyone who’s running a fever is immediately sent home. What’s more, students’ hands and the soles of their shoes are sanitized with an alcohol-based disinfectant before they’re allowed into the building.

Students wear face masks supplied by the government, and they receive regular reminders to wash their hands. At one school, there are announcements before each class period, encouraging students to wash their hands — and each class has a designated student “chief disinfectant officer” who applies disinfectant from a spray bottle to surfaces that need it. The school also uses folding dividers to keep students separated from each other’s air space during lunch.

Taiwanese teachers are advised to handle students’ waste carefully and to watch for signs that students might have the virus, such as excessive tiredness or a loss of appetite. If any school experiences two or more COVID-19 infections, it’s immediately closed again for 14 days.

Taiwan isn’t the only country to make significant changes to protect students and staff from the COVID-19 virus. Schools across Denmark reopened in mid-April with new hygiene and distancing measures in place to protect students and staff.

According to CNN, government regulations require that children are split into smaller groups and can wash their hands immediately upon arrival and at least every two hours. In addition, contact surfaces like sinks, toilet seats, and door handles are disinfected twice a day. Schools are also printing maps that mark entrance and exit routes to make sure students aren’t crowded together, and they’re making sure that children remain outside as much as possible.

At the Hendriksholm School in Rodovre, just outside Copenhagen, students now sit at desks spaced six feet apart. The school sent a detailed diagram to parents outlining staggered arrival times, routes, breaks, and lunch times.

While there has been some concern from parents and teachers about sending children back to school, a large majority of families have been supportive of the decision, says Jimmy Skov Glasdam Adetunji, head of secondary education at the Hendriksholm School. He adds: “The kids really need this social interaction.”

Eight Key Changes to Keep Everyone Safe from COVID-19

How might these practices inform our own actions when North American states and provinces reopen schools? Here are eight key suggestions for keeping students and staff safe when schools reopen.

Establish stringent cleaning routines.

K-12 administrators and school boards should implement and enforce strict cleaning routines that are more frequent — and thorough — than prior procedures, at least until the COVID-19 threat is over. For instance, all classrooms should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected every night, and high-touch areas (doorknobs, technology, phones, hands-on materials, and desk/table surfaces) should be disinfected throughout the school day as well.

School systems would be wise to follow the CDC’s recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting community facilities in developing new procedures.

With budgets likely to be squeezed amid the new recession, school systems might not be in a position to hire additional custodians or pay overtime for their current custodial staff. This means K-12 leaders will have to be creative in establishing and enforcing new cleaning routines. Consider how you might alter the schedules of existing staff, as well as enlist the help of other staff members within the school community.

Enforce new distancing policies.

Even when students return to school, they should be kept apart as much as possible to reduce the risk of further contagion. K-12 leaders should establish distancing rules or guidelines for students at school, such as having students sit at every other seat in the cafeteria or stand a few feet apart in lines. Using reminders such as placing tape on the floor to mark how far apart students should stand could help them maintain proper distancing.

Rethink how you’ll organize activities that involve large groups of students, such as lunch, recess, physical education, athletics, or assemblies. Think about forming smaller class sizes or groupings where possible, and encourage students to spread out as much as the space in your building allows. You might have to repurpose some areas of the school for learning that are currently being used for other activities. Hold classes outdoors if you can.

Also, limit or prohibit physical contact, substituting elbow bumps for hugs, handshakes, and fist bumps. Consider having students wear masks, sit at semi-private reading carrels, or use folding dividers when seated together at tables, such as these inexpensive porta-screen carrels.

Communicate healthy habits on a regular basis.

Build lessons and reminders into the school day to ensure that students are following healthy practices for not spreading germs, such as washing their hands regularly, covering all coughs, and not touching their faces. Make it easy for students to practice healthy hygiene, such as making spray bottles or disinfectant wipes available in classrooms. Work with local health professionals and organizations to get the word out to students and their families about what they can do to keep themselves and others safe.

Monitor the health of students and staff.

Teachers and students should know the signs and symptoms of possible COVID-19 infection, such as fever, tiredness, dry cough, and — in the most severe cases — difficulty breathing. If anyone exhibits these symptoms, they should be sent home immediately. School systems should establish clear procedures for disposing of waste and for closing schools again if an outbreak occurs in their communities.

Establish new policies for admitting visitors.

Parents, community members, delivery personnel, sales reps, installation and repair crews, and other visitors to a school building should follow certain protocols to maintain the health and safety of the entire school community. For instance, you might ask that deliveries be left in an enclosed foyer, and you might require visitors who actually enter the building to wear a mask and gloves.

Limit or eliminate the sharing of materials.
Consider giving each child his or her own writing materials, art and science supplies, floor mat, PE equipment, and other supplies that traditionally have been shared to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus.

Make sure all indoor spaces are well ventilated.

Keep windows open as the weather allows, and use ventilating fans where possible to increase air flow and circulation.

Keep a constant supply of essential resources.

If possible, schools should stock up on disinfectants, wipes, spray bottles, paper towels, hand sanitizer, dispensers, cleaning tools, and other essential supplies for keeping surfaces clean and germ-free. (All disinfectants and other dangerous chemicals should be safely stored out of the reach of young children.)

Other Factors to Consider When Reopening Schools

Keeping students and staff safe and healthy will be foremost on everyone’s minds, but it’s not the only factor to consider as schools reopen. Here are three other important issues that leaders will need to plan for.

Academic remediation

K-12 leaders can expect that school closings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will have a similar (or worse) effect than traditional summer learning loss on students’ academic readiness. It’s highly likely that students won’t be able to just pick up where they left off in the curriculum. Many students will need substantial review and/or remediation before they can move forward with learning new content — and leaders should plan for how their schools will address these needs.

Social and emotional wellness

Social and emotional learning are important for students’ well-being and development in the best of times. During a stressful event like a pandemic, they’re absolutely critical. Leaders should develop a plan for helping students cope emotionally as well as physically, such as building strategies for managing stress and anxiety into everyday lessons

“It’s important to remember that all members of the school community have been through a crisis,” says Deanna Marie Lock, Director of Category Expertise and Support for School Specialty. “In my first year as an assistant principal in Frederick County, Virginia, our country was rocked by 9-11. As we focused on creating a new normal, we tried to return to routines in an effort to support our students and our faculty — and we also focused on what our new needs would be.”

While it was natural to take stock of what students needed, it was a different matter to assess what educators and parents needed as well, Lock says, noting: “We all had been impacted and we all had changed.”

Lock’s advice when implementing new routines, procedures, and safety measures is to remember that your greatest assets are your people. 

“The basic social and emotional needs of every member of the school community most likely has been impacted,” she says, “and in a post-COVID school day, a physical hug might not be the best option when showing compassion. That being said, identifying who needs support, who needs encouragement, and who needs to be celebrated can help leaders provide the ‘virtual’ hugs that will be needed. And remember, as you are giving to others, give yourself some grace as well.”

Contingency planning

Now that school systems have experience in closing down on short notice and shifting to remote learning, K-12 leaders can use the lessons they’re learned from this experience to plan for future contingencies.

For instance, evaluate your transition to online learning. What did you do well as an organization? What aspects could you improve on for the next time? Think about your decision-making and communication during the crisis, as well as your edtech infrastructure. Were teachers, students, and families able to communicate with each other in an efficient manner? Did you have the instructional resources you needed to continue teaching and learning remotely? Did teachers and students have what they needed? If not, where did you fall short — and what should you do to fill these needs in case you have to shut your doors again?

Not Just Business as Usual

Whenever local government officials decide to reopen schools, it’s clear that it won’t just be business as usual. The threat of COVID-19 will lead to significant changes in the practices of staff, teachers, and students alike.

Look to others for ideas as you think about what policies and procedures might work best in your own communities. Use authoritative sources of information, such as the CDC’s “Guidance for Schools and Child Care Programs” website, the World Health Organization’s coronavirus page, and the U.S. Department of Education’s collection of COVID-19 resources, to stay up to date on the latest recommendations.