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Back to School COVID-19 Basics

[fa icon="calendar"] May 28, 2020 9:33:04 AM / by Martin J. Barry, PhD, CIH, CSP, PE

There are major benefits for students of all ages to return to school. But if a school system reopens business as usual (like in 2019), uncontrolled COVID-19 transmission within the school system and the community could cause major public health problems. Reopening schools with reasonable and workable changes should radically reduce that COVID-19 threat.

From university systems to individual colleges to municipal school systems, back-to-school timeframes are still in flux. It may be too early to know exactly what the next academic year will look like, but it is not too early to start planning for the return of students, faculty, and staff because it will be a significant amount of work to prepare schools to handle in-person classes and on-campus activities.

COVID-19 Management Planning

A major step in managing COVID-19 risks is the development of a school-specific COVID-19 management plan that gives direction and guidance to help mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 and provide safe and healthy environments for students and staff. This plan should include direction for managing school operations in a way that is consistent with requirements of local, state, and federal agencies and tailored to the specific advantages and challenges of each school, recognizing that risks may vary significantly between regions and types of schools. The plan should be a living document—updated as conditions change and additional information is obtained. 

Ideally, the COVID-19 management plan should be developed by a team led by the president, superintendent, or principal and including teachers, facilities staff, union representatives, coaches, and other key members of the school program. The team should consider the ALARA principle—to ensure that coronavirus transmission risks are As Low As Reasonably Achievable. There are many approaches to managing the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools including:

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  • Require face-coverings in common areas (like corridors) and whenever 6-foot distancing is not workable.
  • Maintain 6-foot clearance between people. If needed, reduce the number of students in classrooms by maximizing school-at-home, splitting classes into multiple sessions, or instituting other academic changes.
  • Install physical shields (as they do in grocery stores) to create safe spaces in administrative areas, teacher desks in classrooms, and in other locations.
  • Set up protocols for health screening, periodic testing, and contact tracing.
  • Review and revise cleaning and maintenance procedures as needed for consistency with applicable regulations.
  • Implement additional social distancing practices, such as avoiding gatherings of any size, including in lunch or break room areas, performing meetings online or via conference call whenever possible, including teacher-parent meetings, no hugs and handshakes, and requiring non-essential personnel to work from home when feasible.

After-School Activities

After-school activities should be reviewed individually on a risk/benefit basis. Activities like language clubs, board games, and other non-physical activities may be manageable using social distancing and masking. Sports like golf and tennis may be readily managed due to the ability to maintain social distancing protocols, whereas contact sports may be harder to effectively manage. 

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If a school decides to cancel some or all fall 2020 sports due to risks of COVID-19 transmission, the school might consider substituting lower risk physical activities, such as tai chi, yoga, or weight training.  

If a school is considering keeping certain sports active, the schools should study the specific risks for disease transmission associated with the sports’ specific activities and, as appropriate, determine ways to reduce or eliminate the health risks.

For example, a school may consider whether to allow baseball and/or softball programs. When evaluating the risks associated with the activities, schools should consider each aspect of the program, including the use of locker rooms (or not), warm-up and stretching, batting practice, management of dugouts, and potential competition rule changes.

Specific baseball/softball activities should be evaluated for the associated risk of transmission. A conservative risk evaluation may dismiss an entire baseball/softball program because of the risk of COVID-19 transmission associated with contact or close-contact activities like sliding and base-stealing. A second school could determine that the risk of disease transmission from these specific activities was acceptable and make no changes. A third school could determine that the health risks associated with these specific activities was unacceptable, and modify the rules to eliminate sliding and base stealing.

Budget Considerations

The financial impact of reopening will differ for each school system and individual school. Schools may need to do a line-by-line budget review, as there may be both increases and decreases in expenditures for staffing, buses, materials, and services.

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Examples of costs that may increase:

  • Administrative or nursing staff
  • Custodial and maintenance staff
  • Paraprofessionals or teacher aids for additional oversight in common areas, corridors, bathrooms, and play areas, and for monitoring lunch periods in classrooms (specifically in settings where teachers provided unrestricted lunch breaks)
  • Teachers and related staff for managing expanded homeschooling
  • Bus transportation (if one per seat restriction; additional bus runs if multiple school sessions)
  • Testing supplies and analysis
  • Construction materials, like framing and Plexiglass
  • Masks, gloves, sanitizers, signage

Examples of costs that may decrease:

  • Elimination of stipends for coaches and staff
  • Reduced transportation costs (associated with sports and day trips)
  • Reduced supplies for sports and activities that will not be happening

These are some of the many considerations for schools to determine when they are ready to open up for in-person classes and on-campus activities as we deal with the COVID-19 threat. At CCA, our doctorate-level certified industrial hygienists and experienced professional engineers can work with your schools to assess COVID-19 risks for students, faculty, and staff and help you build a path to reopening in a way to minimize public health risks and maximize learning.

Need help ensuring a safe return to school?

Access our webinar on Getting Back to Work Safely: Experts Discuss Facility & Operational Planning for COVID-19 and receive our comprehensive checklist to set up the right systems and protocols.

Topics: Disaster, Environmental, Catastrophe Response, COVID-19