In what seemed like a brief moment in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to force the cancellation of traditional learning. This forced students, parents, and teachers to provide at-home learning, which many were not equipped to do (https://www.edweek.org/leadership/the-coronavirus-spring-the-historic-closing-of-u-s-schools-a-timeline/2020/07). Even still, as of February 16th, 2021, four states continue to enforce state-ordered regional school closures, require closures for certain grade levels, or allow hybrid instruction only — 41 states continue to leave the decisions to the schools or districts (https://ballotpedia.org/School_responses_to_the_coronavirus_(COVID-19)_pandemic_during_the_2020-2021_academic_year). Many large districts aim to open school doors once more. That is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new CDC roadmap for reopening schools last week.
Downsides to At-Home Instruction
Due to continued at-home learning, the lack of structure in our public education system has led to increasingly poor academic performance and slow progress of social and emotional development skills that are essential for children of all ages around the United States. These detrimental impacts will continue to worsen until schools can reopen.
Can Schools Go Back to In-Person Learning?
The CDC roadmap for reopening focuses on 5 key mitigation strategies and outlines the proper tools to decide when and under what conditions schools should return to 100% in-person learning:
#1: Universal and correct use of wearing masks
For students, families, teachers, school staff, and community members to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is essential to take accountability and enforce new rules and regulations.
An alarming study showed that from a sample of close to 4,000 students, only 65% of them reported that fellow students wore masks “all the time” in the classroom, hallways or stairwells and only 42% on school buses and 40% in restrooms (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7006a5.htm?s_cid=mm7006a5_w).
If full in-person classes resume without action, the cases of COVID-19 will grow immensely. Schools need to have the rules and consistent steps of action to prioritize the universal, proper use of masks 100% of the time.
#2: Physical distancing
Schools must ensure that there are updated guidelines and consistent steps of action to ensure that physical distancing is always being maintained.
The CDC has a COVID-19 Mitigation Toolkit for K-12 schools. This kit outlines recommended strategies to encourage behaviors that reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. The link to view and utilize the toolkit is: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/FINAL-0321420_B_K-12_Mitigation_Toolkit508.pdf.
#3: Washing hands
School staff need to prioritize ongoing health education lessons on teaching children how to properly wash their hands for 20 seconds, teach adequate respiratory etiquette, and maintain readily available supplies (such as soap) to all people within the school.
#4: Cleaning facilities and improving ventilation
Schools need to adopt and consistently follow in-depth cleaning guidelines. They must maintain protocols to ensure a healthy environment and facilities. Here are just a few of the suggestions that the roadmap outlines:
- Adjusting the layouts
- Discouraging the sharing of items
- Installing physical barriers
#5: Contact tracing in combination with quarantine & isolation
It is crucial to implement a systematic and comprehensive contact tracing program to track infected staff, students, and teachers. The program must also ensure that schools follow consistent steps of action to isolate cases and quarantine contacts. As long as schools heed any applicable laws, they are allowed to prepare and provide information of potential contacts, exposure sites, and recommendations to aid in the identification of potential contacts.
Prompt identification, self-quarantine, and continuous monitoring of the infected and their contacts can be a very time-consuming, daunting task — but it is essential in reducing and preventing the further spread of COVID-19.
Many schools have trained certain members of their staff to take on this contact tracing role. This can be very difficult to manage as the entire process is lengthy and pulls those staff members away from their own normal work duties.
During this continued pandemic, schools need to ensure they have an “all hands-on deck” setup. Asking a staff member to do twice the work can cause errors, decrease efficiency, and cause employee burnout.
For a thorough contact tracing process from start to finish, schools should outsource to a dedicated HIPAA-compliant contact tracing company. This company will ensure each step is done according to school, CDC, and local laws. Click here to learn how you can remove that burden and give peace of mind to you and your school’s community.
What Other Health Measures Should Schools Take?
In addition to following the 5 mitigation strategies, the CDC recommends that schools continue to watch for the indicators of community transmission, phased mitigation, and routine screening testing of teachers and staff once per week. “CDC recommends the use of two measures of community burden to determine the level of risk of transmission: total number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days; and percentage of nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), including RT-PCR tests that are positive during the last 7 days” (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/operation-strategy.html#executive-summary).
Red areas are counties that have 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, or a test positivity rate of 10% (https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/national/coronavirus/few-schools-should-fully-reopen-under-cdcs-new-guidelines).
Under the guidelines, the CDC advises schools in “red” areas to hold virtual-only classes for middle and high schools “unless they can strictly implement all mitigation strategies, and have few cases.”
Elementary schools should be in hybrid learning or reduced attendance, requiring students to be distanced 6 feet apart.
We Must Work Together to Follow the CDC Roadmap for Reopening Schools
As the CDC Director on Sunday, February 14th 2021, emphasized, “we have work to do” in order to fall in line with the CDC roadmap for reopening schools safely — particularly with regard to the need for masking and other mitigation measures (https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/14/politics/school-reopenings-cdc-director-walensky/index.html).
Let us all work together in the fight to end this pandemic and get our kids back to in-person school while ensuring safety for everyone!
Written by: Nicole Bramblett, MHA