A Complex Equation: State issues rules that are not negotiable Part 2 on reopening schools in the Time of Covid-19

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

This is the second in a series of articles on what schools will have to plan for when they open in the fall. To read Part 1 click here.

The most volatile variable in any plan to reopen schools this fall will be the public health situation. In early June, Agency of Education Secretary Dan French told The Telegraph that while schools will be able to chart their own course in certain areas, the guidelines that his agency and the Department of Health would issue for containing the spread of the coronavirus would not be open to interpretation.

Last Wednesday those guidelines were put out. The 25-page A Strong and Healthy Start: Guidance for Vermont Schools answers a number of questions while prompting more. But what follows is – for now – the canvas on which school districts must work. And of course, this is a fluid situation that is liable to change.

The document divides the approach to health concerns into three steps.

Under Step 1, schools would be closed for in-person instruction and students would receive remote learning. But the document assumes that the public health situation will allow in-person schooling, which will start at Step 2 in which schools would be open but with “enhanced” safety precautions. If the situation improves, schools could then move to Step 3 in which some safety measures could be relaxed.

Because the severity of the pandemic can vary from time to time and from place to place, some schools may be closed while others are open.  And that could change throughout the year, meaning that schools should prepare for more than several ways of delivering instruction.

Every school day starts with a health check

Temperature checks will be a feature of daily life at school Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels

The AOE will mandate that every student be screened at his “first point of contact,” which could be at the door of the school or the school bus door.

Each day, a school employee will ask the students (or parents or caretakers if they too young to answer) if they have been in contact with someone who has Covid-19 or if they feel sick and have symptoms of Covid-19. This will be followed by a temperature check. If a student answers yes to either question or has a temperature higher than 100.4 F, he or she must return home.

The person making the checks must wear a facial covering, eye protection and gloves, all of which may need to be changed after each check. And while on school or on buses, all students and staff must wear masks. The availability of personal protective equipment will be important to making this happen.

Staff members will have to assess their own risk of “severe illness” and decide whether they should avoid working in-person. Parents will need to do the same if their children have compromised immune systems or cannot follow the health guidelines. The document does not address whether parents who decide to keep their kids out of school simply out of fear or misgivings about the pandemic will be have the educational support of the school system or will be on their own as homeschoolers.

Getting to school

Transportation may involve more bus runs to keep students at safe distances. <small>Telegraph file photo

The guidelines from the AOE spell out strategies for providing transportation to school, but it also says schools should encourage parents to bring children to school or, if it is safe, to have them walk or bike to school.

But if your child takes the school bus, the state recommends having an adult monitor on the bus with the driver and assigning seats by age to maintain distance. The bus driver and monitor will have to clean and disinfect surfaces regularly.

Under Step 2, the school should create distance between students on the bus – suggesting one student per seat in every other row. The AOE also suggests staggering pick up and drop off times and more bus stops to minimize gatherings at the stops. This could mean more bus runs throughout the day which will add to the transportation budget. Again, Step 3 is less restrictive, with students spaced apart based on the number of riders.

Arriving and departing

Once students get to school they will be assigned to one of several  entrances to lessen the crowds at one.  Parents and caregivers will not be allowed to accompany students into the school except for those with younger students and those students with anxiety for the first few days.

Hand sanitizing stations will be at every entrance unless an entrance is near a sink for hand-washing immediately on arrival.  After health screening and hand-washing students will go directly to their classrooms. The state also lists 14 events that trigger the need to wash or sanitize hands during the day — including before and after eating — and schools must provide plenty of hand lotion “to support healthy skin.”

Everyone must wear a mask except those students who have a medical or a behavioral issue with the mask or children who are not able to put on or take off a mask or who will touch or suck on the mask. Decisions on who will not have to wear a mask will be made by the school nurse and the child’s health care provider.

Groups, cohorts and pods and discouraging sharing

Noting that reducing contact between individuals is the most effective way of containing the spread of the coronavirus, the AOE says that students must be kept in groups no larger than allowed by the state at the specific time. The limit includes staff as well.

Scenes like this may become a thing of the past. Photo by Pixabay

These groups are called “cohorts” and “pods.” The state says that they should be kept together and not mixed with other cohorts, including on the playground and school yard.

Within the cohort, the AOE says, desks should be 6 feet apart and facing in the same direction. The document also suggests alternatives like moving classes outside, broadcasting instruction to multiple rooms to allow for spacing and having a homeroom where students stay put while classroom teachers rotate in and out. This will be more difficult in the upper grades where students do not all take the same courses at the same times.

Within these cohorts, the AOE says, electronic devices, toys, books, games, learning aids, musical instruments and supplies should not be shared. Instead, the agency says, schools should ensure adequate supplies and clean objects that have to be shared between groups. This will have an impact on a budget that did not include extra supplies

Libraries, gyms, cafeterias and food service

To keep the coronavirus from spreading in large groups, the state is also regulating the use of communal spaces like libraries, cafeterias, gyms, auditoriums and multi-purpose rooms. Libraries can be open if distancing can be practiced, but access would be restricted to one pod at a time. Group activities like singing and music that includes woodwinds or brass should be avoided because they could spread respiratory droplets.  But sports and theater can take place if they meet state guidelines.

Students desks in classrooms will need to be place farther apart than in the past.Photo by Pixabay

Cafeterias and gyms must be closed unless they are used to extend classroom space. Food will not be served in the cafeterias but will be served by an adult at each student’s desk. Additional sanitizing of desks, tables and other eating areas must take place.

The AOE’s guidance will require vast amounts of cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and additional instructional supplies not to mention the army of adults needed to keep all of this on track. Some employees will not feel comfortable returning to school which could lead to a shortage of qualified people to run a more complex system.

Modifications to the buildings – including HVAC and security systems – will likely be needed as well. All of these will have price tags that are not included in the budgets approved by voters in March.

While school districts may be trying to save money as a cushion for the next year, funds will likely go toward complying with the AOE plans. Depending on the status of vaccine development and manufacturing, the schools will also have to build in budgetary flexibility for whatever might happen in the ’21/’22 school year

With all of this in mind, next week we address questions about learning and what instruction could look like in the fall, which is just nine weeks away.

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