Opening our schools: Challenge and response

Opening our schools: Challenge and response

National survival (and Jewish survival) is based on how we respond to the challenges we face.

We are now facing a major challenge on many fronts because of the covid-19 pandemic. Despite the positive spin coming from Washington, we are not out of the woods yet. Scientists and infectious disease specialists agree that despite the strain on the economy, social services, hospitals, people’s lives in social isolation, and so in, it is premature and potentially dangerous to resume our lives as they were until shortly after Purim this year.

How we respond in so many areas is debated daily by experts in many fields, both in and out of government. We are drowning in information but lack guidance. How this country gets back on its feet, and how soon it can do so, is beyond my capacity to determine. It seems clear, however, that now is the time to address the issue of opening schools in September.

I wish to highlight the specific concerns and challenges facing our schools, and specifically our day schools, congregational schools, and early childhood programs, and address the guidelines recently published by the Centers for Disease Control.

Can our schools follow all state and local guidelines? Can our private schools protect children and employees who are at higher risk of infection? Will all students and employees, delivery personnel and visitors be screened for symptoms upon arrival? If any of these three requirements cannot be met, schools should not open, according to the CDC. Schools must promote healthy hygiene practices, such as hand washing and facemasks for teachers and other employees. Cleaning, disinfecting, and ventilation must be increased. Social distancing must be observed in classrooms and elsewhere, and all employees must be trained in health and safety protocols.

If any of these recommendations cannot be met, schools should not open.

Daily monitoring for signs and symptoms for all students and employees upon arrival must take place. Naturally, anyone who is sick must stay home, flexible leave policies and practices need to be implemented, and open communications with local health authorities must be established. If these safeguards are not in place, the CDC advises against opening the school.

Face coverings should be encouraged for students when physical distancing is difficult, but they may be a challenge for younger students to wear all day. Signage on how to stop the spread of covid-19 with reminders of proper hand washing and the promotion of protective measures must be posted conspicuously.

For social distancing, keep the same group of children with the same staff as much as possible. Cancel field trips, inter-group events, and extracurricular activities. Limit gatherings, events, and extracurricular activities to those who can maintain social distancing with proper hygiene support. Seating and desks should be at least six feet apart, and desks should face in the same direction instead of facing each other; or students can sit on one side of a table, spaced apart. Circle time will be eliminated.

Communal spaces, such as dining areas and playgrounds, should be closed off if possible or their use must be staggered and they must be disinfected after each use. Meals should be served in classrooms instead of a cafeteria. Social distance as much as possible on school buses, perhaps with one child per seat in every other row. Parents who car pool will need to limit how many children they can take.

Limit sharing. Keep a students’ belongings separated and in individually labeled containers, cubbies, or other areas. They must be taken home each day and cleaned as thoroughly as possible. Ensure adequate supplies to minimize sharing of high touch materials as much as possible. Avoid sharing electronic devices, books, toys, or other learning aids.

Check staff and students for symptoms daily, in accordance with privacy regulations. Schools should identify an isolation room or area to separate anyone who exhibits covid-19-like symptoms. Establish procedures for safely transporting anyone who is sick back home or to a health care facility. Close off areas used by a sick person and do not use before cleaning and disinfection. Wait 24 hours before disinfecting.

Get a coronavirus watch newsletter with updates on how the coronavirus is affecting our community and the nation. Create a communication system for staff and families to self-report symptoms and notification of exposures and closures. Designate a staff member to be responsible for responding to covid-19 concerns. The CDC recommends that schools collaborate with local health officials and other authorities about decisions and about gradually scaling up operations.

Dr. Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore’s schools, describes the challenge facing educators as the Apollo 13 moment. “There’s a scene in the movie Apollo 13 when they are trying to figure out how to keep the astronauts alive while they work out how to get them home,” she said. “A guy dumps a box of objects on the table and says, ‘These are the only resources we can use.’ That’s what it feels like. We have to figure out how to keep everyone fed, connected, and learning in real time, with constrained resources and heightened urgency.”

We need serious contingency planning, since the contours of the next phase are not yet clear. We need to conceptualize the many possible scenarios we could see later this year and ask how we might address each of those, or some combination of them, and develop workable plans for how to respond effectively. We cannot reinvent our whole system before we return to school, even if that were desirable. But we need to think systematically about redesigning our schools to work more safely and efficiently for every student.

This new reality presents major challenges to educators returning after a long period of remote learning. Compounding the generic challenge of dealing with the corona virus, there is a new strain of an inflammatory syndrome that affects not just adults but also children.

Issues like disinfecting surfaces, reducing students’ contact with peers, and promoting social distancing on school buses are problematic and challenging. Yet they are necessary steps until a vaccine or therapeutic drug becomes widely available. Schools should increase ventilation of outside air, unless it creates concerns for students with asthma. Bottled water can replace water fountains, and options for telework and virtual learning can be provided for students and staff who are at higher risk for severe illness. When a student or staff member tests positive for covid-19, schools must close for one or two days to clean and sanitize.

After seeing this document, educators said it may be difficult to carry out some of the recommendations. On a conference call with CDC officials, educators asked about the feasibility of wearing masks and screening students. “It’s easy for non-teachers to make such statements. How do you expect effective teaching in masks?” “I couldn’t imagine wearing a mask for a student who has trouble hearing. Think about ECE and how they have to show their mouth shaped to show letter/vowel sound.” “All teachers need to be mic’d up next year.”

Most school leaders scoff at the practicality of spacing desks six feet apart. How can this be accomplished in a classroom of 20 to 25 students? Do schools have so many extra classrooms, desks, and additional faculty? Can we sit five students per desk?

The requirement to provide enough materials so that students don’t have to share will add significantly to the school supply budget, or it will result in teachers spending more of their own money. How do we determine who is at greater risk and can distance learn or teach when even children have died of covid-199?

I understand that until there is a vaccine or an effective therapeutic treatment, schools will have to modify their operations to keep students and staff healthy and to prevent asymptomatic spread in their buildings. Additional maintenance staff must be hired, supplies purchased, and the whole process requires supervision.

The White House calls for states to ease restrictions in a phased approach. Even if schools open after Phase 3, the CDC guidelines will be difficult to maintain. How can we maintain social distancing on school buses? Even if schools quadrupled the number of buses they use to transport students, do bus companies even have enough vehicles to serve all the schools, both public and private? It’s a problem that needs resolution if we are to open our schools safely. Schools will encounter drastically expanded costs as they work to modify their procedures according to health officials, while also implementing ways to catch students up after interrupted learning time.

The 2020-21 academic year is as challenging and unparalleled as the end of this school year because of covid-19. When and how the 2020-21 academic year can begin is unclear, due to the continuing questions about the extent and the spread of the deadly virus.

Our school buildings are closed for this school year. I am certain that school leaders have started to plan for the fall, so that students may return safely for the new school year while we still are struggling with the pandemic.

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