Steps School Administrators Can Take
Eliminate Physical Contact
Eliminating physical contact is the most effective method to reduce disease transmission. This strategy shifts learning to a virtual format. Even for schools offering full time in-person learning, development of a virtual learning program is important to accommodate students and teachers who are at high-risk for COVID-19 infection due to older age or prior risk profiles, as well as for students or teachers who are in quarantine or isolation. A remote learning platform is also critical in the event of a school closure.
Adjust Academic Calendar & Class Scheduling
The academic calendar and class schedules should be adjusted to maximize physical distancing at all times. Staggering arrival and departure times, recess, lunch times and times for locker access for different learning pods are all potential strategies that facilitate physical distancing between students. The time allotted for recess, lunchtime and locker access can also be extended to give students more time to travel or wash their hands without generating high traffic in hallways or other spaces. The extra time will also give staff more time to ventilate classrooms between different groups of students. Having a hybrid schedule in which students take virtual classes for a portion of the week and in-person classes for the remainder of the week also may be useful in reducing school occupancy.
Create Learning “Pods”
Smaller cohorts or ‘pods’ can be created to limit class sizes. Students within each pod can eat together, have classes together and perform school activities together. If a student within a pod becomes sick, this model reduces the risk of a larger outbreak across the wider school community. Pod size can be strategically adjusted based on the size of the school, number of available teachers and classrooms and the different social and developmental needs of different age groups. Setting up dedicated entrances and exits for different pods, whenever possible, can further mitigate risk. Arrows and signs are helpful to indicate directions of travel and encourage physical distancing. It may be beneficial to allow students from the same pod to use the same classroom throughout the school day and ask teachers to rotate between spaces. This method can minimize item-sharing and contact in hallways and stairwells.
Before and after-school programs such as sports and club activities have traditionally been offered to enrich the learning environment. These higher risk gatherings (school assemblies, proms, arts events such as dance, music or dramatic presentations) are best held in a virtual format to maintain the students’ social networks while reducing risks to the school community.
Clean and Disinfect Constantly
Commonly touched surfaces and items in school common spaces should be periodically and more frequently cleaned and disinfected; tabletops, chairs, doorknobs, electronics and banisters are of particular concern. It is important that surfaces and items that appear to be dirty be cleaned prior to disinfection. Recommended disinfectants for use against the COVID-19 virus have been compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No/reduced touch options (i.e. sensor-activated, foot-operated pedals) can be also installed to further reduce risk of disease transmission through contact of contaminated surfaces. In the event that a student or teacher is suspected to be COVID-19 positive, it is recommended that access to any spaces used by this individual be restricted until after thorough cleaning and disinfection is complete.
Monitor Noise Levels
Sound level can be an indicator of potential transmission of the COVID-19 virus through the release of germs caused by people speaking loudly, yelling, or shouting. The NIOSH Sound Level Meter app is a free app that can be used to indirectly inform and remind students and teachers to keep sound levels low. Visual displays of sound levels are also available in the form of a traffic light, which serves as a useful tool for younger students
Implement COVID-19 Symptom Checks
COVID-19 symptom-check apps are a useful tool that schools can implement to remind students and teachers to report symptoms and check their daily temperature. The apps will notify school officials as soon as a COVID-19-like symptom arises. The schools can then take immediate action to encourage students to stay at home, conduct a test and conduct contact tracing. These apps can also provide additional information regarding student attendance, movement, family member attendance as well as parent and teacher communications. This information helps schools identify high-risk individuals and families and allows for immediate action. While convenient, use of these apps requires access to a digital oral thermometer which can present challenges. Schools can also conduct non-touch temperature checks before students enter as an alternative to mitigate risks.
Isolate & Quarantine Potentially Ill Students
Schools should have the necessary devices and medical supplies to monitor COVID-19 symptoms. If a student gets sick while they are in school or shows any COVID-19 symptom, they should be isolated in a dedicated space until they leave the school property. School staff should be mindful to use proper personal protective equipment when interacting with a potentially ill student. Anyone who might have been exposed to an ill student, teacher or staff member must be notified and quarantined immediately. It is debatable whether a class or pod is considered exposed if there has been mask use, physical distancing, hand and surface hygiene and optimized indoor air management. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a contact to be proximity of less than 2 meters or 6 feet for at least 15 minutes. If someone in the class qualifies as a contact using this criterion (friends sharing lunch in close proximity, for example), then they must be quarantined. The rest of the class may not meet this contact definition. If a case is confirmed, the responsible health care worker or teacher must file a report to the local health department. Parents or guardians and the student’s pediatrician must be notified immediately. Parents or guardians must be prepared to pick their children up immediately and keep their ill children at home. Furthermore, the responsible adults must be educated on prevention strategies to avoid a family cluster outbreak.
Communicate Clearly and Often
Daily communications with school personnel can help reinforce important health messages. Regular meetings should be scheduled to evaluate COVID-19 interventions and strategies. Schools should consider sending students and their parents/guardians periodic reminders of their responsibilities for maintaining COVID-19 safety precautions. This can also build consumer confidence in efforts being made to keep children and staff safe. Teachers and staff must stay home if they feel sick. COVID-19 symptoms are so non-specific that any respiratory symptom can be cause for concern; as well as diarrhea and abdominal pain. Schools should anticipate that the number of sick days taken over the academic year will likely be higher than in the past. All students and staff in a school should receive the influenza (flu) vaccine.
Limit Non-Essential Visitors
Strict guidelines for visitors can help mitigate risks. Visitor access should be restricted inside the school building. A designated outside student pick-up area can be set up for parents/guardians. If a visitor must enter a school, it is essential that they wear a face mask covering their nose and mouth. In the case of deliveries or maintenance, physical distancing is prudent as is excellent hand hygiene and outdoor “hand-off”. Establishing a time limit for visitors can also be useful in reducing risk.