What do Schools Need to do to Safely Reopen?

May 18, 2020

As America continues with the process of slowly reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, questions have begun regarding the reopening of schools in the fall. Forty-seven states have shut down schools for the remainder of the academic year. Now these states must weigh their options for how and when they will reopen schools. This article will examine what schools need to do to reopen in the fall and address some concerns about returning to school during the pandemic.

Health and Hygiene

Similar to workplaces throughout the country, schools need to adopt and enforce heightened sanitation procedures. Children, and as a result, schools, are not known to stay clean for long periods of time.

In order to reopen schools, the most important factor will be frequent and widespread testing availability. If insufficient COVID-19 testing is available, it will make it difficult to identify illness in the school community, and therefore complicate the process on how to handle infections in the school community.

Additional hygiene considerations include wearing face masks, daily temperature checks, frequent sanitization of school facilities, regularly washing hands, and social distancing throughout the school day. However, enforcing mask wearing may be difficult, due to the ratio of students to faculty, and the need to have open dialogue in a learning environment.

A school’s ability to apply these measures will largely be based on their budgets. Many municipality budgets have been decimated by this pandemic, and it is unclear how many of these school districts will be able to handle the financial burden of retrofitting facilities for optimal hygiene and sanitation.

While initial research seemed to suggest that children were less affected by COVID-19, recent findings in New York have shown that children have developed a serious inflammatory condition that may be linked to the virus. Doctors have reported that more than 120 children in New York and 200 in other states have contracted what is being called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (“MIS-C”). On May 14, the CDC issued a health alert to physicians warning them of the dangers of the potentially deadly condition.

The discovery of MIS-C and its effects on children also complicates the reopening process. Are schools willing to put their students at risk of contracting MIS-C? Further, students with mild or asymptomatic cases can transmit the virus to at-risk students and faculty members. To reiterate, adequate testing and contact tracing is so critical to schools’ ability to reopen. This would allow schools to quickly detect an outbreak and limit the spread of the virus.

Smaller Class Sizes

In an effort to maintain social distancing, schools would need to consider downsizing the number of students per classroom. This may require schools to implement staggered schedules, where certain students attend school on alternate days. On their off days, students would engage in telelearning. An alternative schedule would include morning and afternoon shifts in schools.

By cutting class size in half, desks could be spaced six feet apart. Classrooms would also be retrofitted with sanitation stations, including disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. As mentioned earlier, the ability to execute these measures will depend largely on budgets.

Elementary School First

Some experts have suggested reopening elementary schools first. The rationale is that elementary classrooms have only one head teacher, whereas middle and high schools feature subject teachers and frequent classroom changes, which means more interaction and movement throughout the school.

However, young children are more likely to be unhygienic, frequently putting their hands in their mouths and touching their faces. This could lead to the rapid spread of the virus if a student becomes infected.

Extended Schedule

Due to the effects of the pandemic on the current schoolyear, which resulted in schools transitioning to telelearning, many schools have considered extending the next school. Due to telelearning, some students may be behind in the education process and would need a way to catch up. This may mean starting the schoolyear earlier or continuing through the summer of 2021 to allow more time for learning.

Flexible Attendance Policies

Once schools reopen, they need to be prepared for the possibility of mass student or staff absences. As a result, schools may need to provide more flexibility on requirements for the number of days students can be absent, certain graduation requirements, and staffing requirements.

Schools must also determine when school closures will be necessary based on a set percentage of staff and student absenteeism. Schools should follow state and local public health authority recommendations when making these determinations.

In addition, schools need to be prepared for a second wave of the virus in the fall. If extended school closures are once again necessary, schools must have a plan ready to reestablish telelearning protocols for students.

No Extracurriculars

Due to the continued necessity of social distancing, most extracurricular activities will have to be suspended indefinitely. This would particularly impact any activity that requires students to gather in large groups, including sporting events.

Challenges for Colleges

Some university administrators have pushed for reopening campuses in the fall. Close-knit college communities are an ideal place to spread a contagion. Colleges need to weigh the danger of potential outbreaks against the potential financial catastrophe that may result from keeping universities closed.

Remaining closed for the fall semester may cause some universities to lose as much as half of their revenue. Therefore, many colleges are developing plans for students to return to campus in the fall. But with students moving freely throughout campuses and interacting, how can universities ensure that this environment can remain safe?

Testing and contact tracing are once again the critical components to reopening, even more so at the university level. An outbreak in one corner of a university community can quickly become a campus-wide outbreak if left unmitigated. Contact tracing may be easier on college campuses, which require students to scan into various locations using ID cards. Universities can track which students have been where on campus, providing a clearly picture of what students and faculty may have been exposed to the virus.

One alternative to a return to regular college life is allowing some students to learn from home for another semester, with a tuition break. This will limit the number of students on campus and would provide less densely packed student housing.

Understand the Emotional Trauma

Developmental experts believe that the disruption to normal life caused by COVID-19 causes an adverse experience for children. Socialization is an important part of childhood development. School counselors say that the isolation caused by social distancing creates trauma. While children, particularly teenagers, spend a lot of time on social media, experts say that the face-to-face interaction of spending time with friends cannot be replaced.

When schools reopen, it is important for schools to provide mental health resources for students and to help them recover. A renewed emphasis on social and emotional learning may go a long way in helping students heal from this traumatic time.


As schools begin to contemplate the reopening process, it is important that they follow the appropriate guidance from public health authorities. This process will contain new challenges, including healthy and safety protocols, remedial academic support, and the possibility of a second wave of the virus. If you have any questions or need assistance throughout this process, please contact us.

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