An altered education upon return

State requirements for school reopening during pandemic point to a sterile, time-consuming but safer experience

The state Education Department released a reopening guidance document on July 16 containing a list of mandatory rules districts must uphold and plans they must create to reopen in the fall, as well as suggestions and alternatives to consider.

The school day will involve consistent hand washing by all, social distancing “whenever possible,” a mask requirement of students and staff when closer than 6 feet, and reduced in-school movement.

A “frequently asked questions” sheet from the Education Department, sent to schools Wednesday, gives social distancing exceptions if “safety or the core activity requires a shorter distance.”

The FAQ sheet states that masks must be worn any time individuals cannot maintain distance, “as a baseline.” If individual districts want to, they can require face coverings “at all times, even during instruction.” This is “strongly recommended” by the state Department of Health, especially in areas with higher rates of COVID-19 community infection.

Parents and guardians can choose not to send their children back to school, so schools will need to provide remote instruction.

“Schools must create a comprehensive plan for a schedule that includes in-person instruction, remote instruction or a hybrid of both in-person and remote,” the department’s guidance document says.

Mandatory plans

To reopen, schools must complete a list of mandatory plans, creating plans for the different systems and situations they may encounter.

Districts must review and consider the number of students and staff allowed to return in person. They must consider their ability to social distance, access to personal protective equipment, safety of transportation and local hospital capacity.

Districts are required to consult their communities in developing their plans, and must establish a communication plan.

Each district must have a written protocol regarding students taking mask breaks, a plan for if there is a case in the school, and plans for accommodating at-risk students or kids who live with at-risk people.

Districts will be mandated to establish groups to work on mental health, to “prioritize social emotional well-being — not at the expense of academics.”

Buses, classrooms and entering schools

Nearly every aspect of the school day — bus rides, meals, classroom instruction, athletics and walking the halls — will be altered to accommodate masks, social distancing and lots of hygienic maintenance.

It starts on the buses, which the guidance document describes as an “extension of the classroom.” Students and drivers will both be required to wear masks and social distance on the bus, and when loading or unloading from the bus. Students who do not have masks cannot be refused a ride; they must be provided masks by drivers.

Districts may choose to install sneeze guards between bus seats. The vehicles must be disinfected once a day and wiped down after each run.

When temperatures are above 45 degrees, roof hatches and windows can be cracked to provide air flow.

Upon arrival at school, students will have their temperatures taken and be screened for COVID-19 symptoms — that is, if they were not screened by parents or guardians at home.

The guidance document says screening by the parent or guardian is preferred in lieu of temperature checks and symptom screening being performed after they arrive at school. This means schools will need to establish communication lines with every parent or guardian.

When a test is done at home, if a kid’s temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit or if they are exhibiting symptoms of the virus, they should be kept at home.

The process of temperature taking is sterile job: involving the trained staff member washing their hands or using new gloves each time, taking the student’s temperature with a non-contact or a basic thermometer while separated by glass or plastic, and other staff members supervising the students who are waiting their turn.

Students will also periodically be asked questions from a questionnaire about if they are experiencing symptoms of the virus or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for it. Faculty will also monitor the students throughout the day for symptoms, which range from obvious — coughing, vomiting — to vague, such as flushed cheeks, or unusually frequent use of the bathroom.

“Students and staff exhibiting these signs with no other explanation for them should be sent to the school health office for an assessment by the school nurse,” the guidance document says.

Staff will also be screened upon their arrival at school.

The districts are required to develop plans to isolate students in designated rooms, and under supervision of the school nurse until they can be sent home, if they are suspected to be ill.

Students held back from school because of illness can return to school once they have met the lengths of times for not showing symptoms, if they were diagnosed with something else and if they’ve been off symptom reducing medicines.

School administrators are encouraged to consider closing school if absentee rates impact the ability of the school to operate safely.

Inside the schools, social distancing will be required by using the building’s space differently than usual, or expanding the campus’ footprint. Temporary structures and tents erected for 180 days or less are allowed to be used.

The guidance document suggests districts work with professionals and open windows for more ventilation.

All student desks will face the same direction.

“It is recommended that the size of groups/cohorts of students be determined by the number of students who can be in each classroom while maintaining six feet social distancing,” the document says.

Lunch and recess

The document suggests lunch be eaten in the classroom, sending one class at a time through the cafeteria line and having them return to the classroom to eat. Food sharing between students is discouraged.

“Remove or suspend the use of share tables, salad bars and other self-service refrigerators and buffets for food and condiments,” the guidance document says.

Whether in classrooms or the cafeteria, students must be 6 feet apart or be separated by a barrier while eating.

Schools will be required to provide students with meals every day, whether they are studying in person or remotely.

The document said schools can consider reducing the number of toilet fixtures or drinking fountains in a building in order to facilitate frequent cleaning, while maintaining the minimum number of fixtures required in a building established in the building code.

Playgrounds will still be open but with restrictions, safeguards and changes. The guidance document recommends staggering playground use in elementary school rather than allowing multiple classes to play together. Activities where multiple groups interact are to be restricted.

The social distancing required distance of 6 feet doubles to 12 feet when students are participating in aerobic activity, singing or playing wind instruments.

The guidance document recommends cancelling or limiting student assemblies, athletic events, performances and school-wide parent meetings, as well as transitioning field trips to free virtual opportunities.

The eight fire evacuation and four lockdown drills mandated each school year will continue, but social distanced at exits and gathering points. They will be conducted on a staggered schedule, where classrooms evacuate separately rather than all at once.