Since COVID-19 arrived in the United States earlier this year, Americans have looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) for guidance on how to stay healthy during these trying times. CDC guidelines have permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, from travel and work to simply leaving the house. On May 19, 2020, the CDC released a set of guiding principles and considerations for educational institutions. These guidelines can be found here. This article will outline the key takeaways from the guidelines set forth by the CDC.
In each state, either the governor or another designated official determines when schools will reopen. In New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the governor decides. As some officials throughout the nation begin to reopen schools and others make plans to do so, these guidelines will interact with local laws to attempt to create a balance between the need for in-person learning with safety.
Level of Risk
The CDC iterates that the lowest level of risk when it comes to schools and the spread of coronavirus is to conduct virtual learning only. As schools plan to reopen doors to staff and employees, school administrators may consider ways to keep students in smaller learning cohorts throughout the day. By keeping students together in small groups, this lowers the risk of transmission across student cohorts. Smaller units may also permit more effective social distancing.
Behaviors that Reduce Virus Spread
Staff instruction and appropriate signage should encourage students to clean their hands properly and to cover coughs and sneezes. Schools ought to have adequate supplies to ensure proper hand cleaning and proper surface disinfection. Educators need to teach students how to use face coverings and enforce their use, particularly among older students who understand their importance and when it is difficult to maintain distance among individuals. School staff and families require education regarding the need to remain home when feeling unwell or when they have been in contact with a COVID-19 carrier. Staff and students ought to not fear repercussions for staying home, as this may discourage sick individuals from isolating and permit the spread of the virus.
Sharing objects and supplies among children ought to be mitigated. When children need to use the same objects, such as door handles, they shall be cleaned between uses as much as possible. Physical barriers should be implemented where feasible, such as in front of reception desks and between restroom sinks. Use of large communal spaces, like cafeterias and auditoriums, must be minimized. Children need to be encouraged to bring food from home and eat in classroom cohorts to prevent food contamination or congregation. Fresh air may provide ventilation when it does not pose an allergy risk or any other safety hazard.
The CDC presents a variety of ways to make school operations safer when reopening after COVID-19. In addition to smaller learning cohorts, the CDC suggests staggering the times cohorts and employees arrive at school to minimize contact between groups and individuals. Staff need to be prepared to spot COVID-19 symptoms and to plan activities that reduce risk of transmission (e.g., virtual field trips, non-contact sports).
Individuals who present symptoms at school need to be isolated from the rest of the population. Depending on the severity of symptoms, symptomatic individuals need to return home or seek medical attention as soon as possible. Spaces where a COVID-19 carrier has worked or played require thorough disinfection before they are used again by others. If possible, it is best to wait 24 hours before cleaning. Local health officials should be notified about the COVID-19 case in compliance with ADA confidentiality standards. Individuals who have had close contact with the COVID-19 carrier must also be notified.
Conclusion: Community and Individual Student Needs
A theme throughout the considerations published by the CDC is that reopening must be flexible and conform to the needs of the community and of the particular student or staff member. For example: plans to reopen in areas with a great or increasing number of coronavirus cases may look different than in a region with a relatively low number of cases. Although face coverings ought to be worn by staff and older children in schools to help prevent the spread of disease, it may not be a suitable course of action for very young students or those who have breathing difficulties. While schools are eager to permit in-person learning and physical attendance, students and staff who are at greater risk of severe illness due to underlying health conditions may be advised to continue to learn from home using virtual resources. By taking into account individual circumstances, schools can attempt to reopen in a way that suits every situation.