The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released much-anticipated guidance Friday to help school leaders nationwide as they weigh options to reopen schools in the fall — or even as early as the summer in some places.
When compared to frameworks and recovery plans released by other organizations and states, the decision tree is relatively general and leaves much in the hands of state and local leaders.
Education Dive overlapped the federal guidance with available drafted state recovery plans, as well as suggested guidance released by institutes or organizations — including the American Federation of Teachers, the American Enterprise Institute, the World Health Organization and Learning Policy Institute — to identify common themes being considered and assess their feasibility based on input from district leaders and health officials.
While some practices, like routine hand washing, are simpler to put in place, other guidelines require nuanced planning and resources.
Across the board, officials, administrators and other leaders agree school operations will, for an unclear period of time, look very different from pre-pandemic days.
Social distancing hard to pull off in certain environments
Social distancing seems to be more practical in some settings than others. In hallways and classrooms, for example, some state plan drafts suggest using visual cues like floor markings to help students and staff stay six or seven feet apart.
Administrators are also discussing staggering hallway and cafeteria patterns to limit the number of students flowing in and out of rooms. Other viable options include eating lunch in classrooms, spacing students out on cafeteria tables, and rotating teachers between classrooms instead of students.
Physical distancing is more practical for older students than younger ones, educators say. Keeping elementary or pre-K students from hugging, moving around or touching things and each other will pose a challenge, as will maintaining distance and other hygiene practices on playgrounds or other play areas.
And while social distancing in buildings may be doable, maintaining it during transportation could require more resources and planning.
Limiting the number of students on a bus to maintain distance could mean increasing the number of buses, drivers and routes, which many districts can’t afford. This could be even less practical considering a nationwide bus driver shortage, and that drivers in many cases have pre-existing conditions or are in an age range more susceptible to coronavirus.
Installing plexiglass also presents similar logistical and financial challenges.
"People don’t realize, it's not about the money — it’s also about the resources," said Debra Pace, superintendent of Osceola County School District. "Can you find the shields and can you find the resources to install them on 300 buses between now and August 10?"
PPE: Who wears it and who doesn’t?
Most health experts, educators and guidelines agree masks or a face-covering cloth should be worn. But new CDC guidelines only specify this precaution for school employees, if feasible.
Many say expecting younger students to wear masks is impractical. “I got sneezed on all the time,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said of her time teaching. “Kids spit when they talk.”
Even if school employees wear masks, concerns like the hefty cost and impact masks could have on students just entering early childhood education remain.
“Masks are scary to younger children,” Pace said, adding she is worried about compromising the “personal connection piece.” While returning children might still be able to recognize the smell and voice of a familiar teacher behind a mask, children will little classroom experience could find masks upsetting.
Pace, who serves a relatively larger district, recently spent around $80,000 dollars on masks.
But it’s not just the cost that concerns her, she said. Even if people are currently promising they'll be available, she's skeptical about whether they’ll be in stock or delivered in time.
Temperature and other health screenings
Daily school operations will “likely include temperature checks,” a Maryland reopening plan draft suggests. Temperature screening checkpoints before students enter the school would require thermometers, which cost additional money — Pace’s recent expenses on thermometers neared $40,000.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said taking temperatures is “an immense logistical issue.” And, NEA’s García points out, all this would require school nurses, which many schools are already short on.
“Where are the school nurses?” she asked. “We can’t pull that out of our back pocket the way we used to. There is nothing in a school budget to buy that.”
Based on its drafted plan, Ohio is adopting a different approach. Schools in the state would require students and employees to take their own temperatures from home on a daily basis, and to only come to school if they show 100 F or below.
This could be more challenging for students who don’t have the resources or supports to identify symptoms of the virus. “Schools should also consider the reality that all students will not be equally supported in a self-assessment and should be aware of those students with higher needs (single-parent, both parents working, etc.),” the plan warns.
What kind of testing, and will there be enough?
In a U.S. Senate committee hearing last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said new tests could rapidly scale up testing capacity and make it “more likely” students will go back to school in August.
One could be a test using saliva, which can be done at home instead of a nose swab or blood test requiring testing centers. Another proposal not yet approved, he said, would resemble a “lollipop sponge” that would light up for a positive.
“Such widespread screening of entire campuses, schools and places of work would help identify those who are sick, trace down those who are exposed — that, in turn, should help persuade the rest of us to go back to school and back to work,” Alexander said.
Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said he expects 40 or 50 million tests to be available by September. Out of those, he expects there to be 25 to 30 million point-of-care tests available per month.
“It is certainly possible to test all of the students,” he said.
But he added “it is much more likely” schools would put in place a “surveillance strategy” where some students would be tested at different times.
Other strategies that still need to be validated, he said, include pooling testing samples (which means “essentially one test could test 20 students”) and testing the school’s sewage.
What would routine sanitizing look like?
The CDC, and many other plans, suggest routinely disinfecting frequently touched surfaces. Surfaces or areas not touched or occupied for seven days don’t need to be disinfected.
But Domenech said it’s still unclear how often touched surfaces would need to be cleaned and who would pay for the cleaning equipment.
Lara Center, an elementary school library aide in the Denver suburbs and president of Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association in Colorado, compared daily cleanings to "thoroughly disinfecting a 35,000-square-foot house every day."
Others agreed it would be a huge lift.
Who comes back and how often?
Educators, state plans and health organizations suggest reconfiguring for staggered school schedules, including hybrid in-person and distance learning options, or limiting to certain groups of students.
Popular options for hybrid models discussed by district and state leaders include weekly or daily rotations of students, with an emphasis on those needing in-person instruction the most.
Those could be elementary school students who cannot be left at home alone when parents return to work, as well as students whose families don’t have resources for e-learning.
“It may be more academically effective to have students in school for longer days on an alternating schedule, rather than every day on a half-day schedule,” Maryland’s state reopening plan suggests.
Many superintendents have confirmed some variation of a staggered schedule with hybrid learning options would be the more the likely and doable choice for fall.
Who makes the decision, and when?
In a meeting with governors of Colorado and North Dakota last week, President Donald Trump told administrators deciding whether to reopen schools in the fall that he “would strongly say they should open.” But he ultimately left it up to governors to decide.
Some state leaders think the decision should be made on an even more local level, saying the level of community spread will differ on a district-to-district basis.
Superintendents said they will make the decision, taking into account state and federal guidance, but only when local health officials give the green light. Ultimately, Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said, a superintendent's decision can still be challenged by state leaders and the courts.
Leading up to the final call, many agree it is important to bring administrators, parents, students, health experts, nurses and teachers to the table. The CDC suggests schools can open in some capacity when there is either none-to-minimal or minimal-to-moderate spread, with those at risk remaining home. Schools should remain closed, however, when the spread is substantial.
Administrators can consider opening schools only after state and local leaders say so and after certain protections and health precautions are in place, and White House guidelines first require a 28-day period of downward trajectory of documented cases or positive tests as a percentage of total tests.
These conditions will likely differ between states, and even between districts, experts say.
“We’ll have to see on a step-by-step basis as we get into the period of time with the fall about reopening the schools, exactly where we’ll be in the dynamics of the outbreak," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained. "I would imagine that situations regarding school will be very different in one region versus another, so it is not going be universally or homogeneous.”