In an effort to stem community spread of the coronavirus, most states issued stay-at-home directives this spring. School buildings were immediately shut down, so teachers did not have a chance to say goodbye to their students or prepare them for months of remote learning. Health officials scrambled to understand how the virus is transmitted, who is at greatest risk, and what measures can slow or prevent outbreaks.
Early information from China indicated that children were relatively safe from the worst effects of the disease. However, medical practitioners have since detected an inflammatory syndrome in children that may be related to COVID-19. While teachers, parents, and children are eager to return to some type of normalcy, with so much still unknown about the virus, schools will need to reopen gradually and practice CDC-recommended sanitation and distancing guidelines to reduce spreading coronavirus in schools.
How the virus is spread: What we know
One of the more vivid images of the times is of workers in hazmat suits spraying public places—sidewalks, park benches, and bus stop shelters—with clouds of disinfectant. For the first time in its 116-year history, New York City’s subway system has stopped running for several hours each night to allow MTA employees to sanitize the subway cars. The focus on sanitation and handwashing is because an infected person can shed the virus, leaving it on surfaces that they touch. The virus can spread to someone else who touches that surface and then brings their hand to their mouth, nose, or eyes.
An April study published in The Lancet found that the virus lasts up to three hours on paper, two days on cloth and wood, and up to seven days on stainless steel and plastic. While this may sound alarming, Carolyn Machamer at the John Hopkins School of Medicine points out that the virus degrades, and it is unlikely to be at an infectious level after several days in the open. The CDC recently revised its information on virus transmission to note that while people may be infected by touching infected surfaces, it is not the main way the virus is spread.
COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through person-to-person contact. The virus is carried in respiratory droplets that are emitted when one coughs or sneezes. Droplets can land in the mouth or nose of a person nearby. Virus carried in droplets does not hang in the air. Gravity pulls the droplets to the ground. Keeping a distance of 6 feet from others greatly reduces the risk of transmission. The World Health Organization, at this time, does not believe the virus travels via aerosols, which are microscopic droplets that can hang in the air for several hours and would pose a much greater threat.
Seven strategies to reduce spreading coronavirus in schools
While we are still learning about this virus, what we have learned over the past several months can guide us in school reopening plans.
#1. Sanitation and disinfecting measures
The responsibility for disinfecting surfaces will fall primarily on the custodial staff. In addition to the usual evening cleaning, districts need to develop schedules and routines for sanitizing often-touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, faucets, and drinking fountains. Refer to the CDC for special guidelines to disinfect and safely operate buses and other transport vehicles. Items such as art supplies, sports equipment, toys, and books should be assigned to students and kept in individually labeled containers or cubbies to discourage sharing.
#2. Personal protective equipment
The CDC recommends that students and staff wear cloth face masks when unable to physically distance from others. Younger children and students with tactile sensitivity may have difficulty wearing face coverings. Adults can help by allowing them to explore their masks—holding it, tugging on the elastics, etc.—and providing positive reinforcement for mask-wearing. All visitors to school buildings should be required to wear face coverings as well.
#3. Health screenings
A dry cough, fever, and fatigue are the most reported COVID-19 symptoms. However, studies show that more than 40% of those infected with the virus display no symptoms at all and that these asymptomatic carriers can infect others. This does not mean that screening for symptoms is a waste of resources; rather, screening is one precaution that districts may take to reduce spreading coronavirus in schools and can be useful in a multi-faceted reopening plan. Districts must encourage staff and students to stay home if they are unwell, and schools should implement policies that facilitate remote learning so it is easier for students to isolate at home.
Populations served by schools include the very young, students with physical limitations, and youth with behavior problems, which makes adhering to 6-foot social distancing requirements problematic. The American Federation of Teachers suggests that districts reduce class sizes to 15 or fewer students, rotate schedules (days on, days off) to limit the number of students in the building at any one time, and stagger start and dismissal times to reduce hallway congestion.
The CDC recommends spacing classroom furniture and positioning desks so they face forward. The cafeteria should remain closed; students may eat at their desks. Schools may need to eliminate field trips, sports, and extracurricular clubs until a vaccine or effective treatments have been developed.
#5. Attendance tracking
The key to containing the virus is the ability to identify illness, isolate those who are infected, and trace their contacts. Automating attendance with modern technology, such as Smart ID Cards, will facilitate recording and reporting absences, so administrators will quickly recognize health problems beyond the normal cold and flu season numbers. Districts must coordinate with local health officials to identify COVID-19 cases among staff and students to avoid a larger outbreak in the school and its community.
#6. Careful control over school visitors
Vendors, substitutes, and other visitors cannot be monitored in the same way that staff and students are, so it is critical to place restrictions on who is allowed to enter the buildings. Updated visitor management and secure door access systems will help administrators keep tight control over who enters the building and create records that may be necessary for contact tracing.
#7. Integrated communication systems
Parents, staff, and the community will only trust the safety of the schools if administrators communicate their plans for reopening and are open about how they plan to address possible COVID-19 infections within the district. Internal emails and messaging must utilize up-to-date networks so stakeholders within the school know immediately if there is a health concern. Communications to parents, the public, and local media must be simple. Rumors and misinformation travel quickly. Administrators need tools to control email blasts, automated phone calls, and messaging from a central point, such as an administration dashboard that links the district’s IT systems.
Our understanding of the novel coronavirus is continually expanding. As districts reopen their buildings, leaders must tap into the most up-to-date information as they develop procedures to reduce spreading coronavirus in schools. Modernizing school IT systems will facilitate communications and better help building administrators keep track of activities on campus.
ScholarChip is an all-in-one platform dedicated to the safety of students, staff, and the entire school community. We work to improve student safety, solve chronic absenteeism, and prevent school violence.
To learn more about how ScholarChip can help you prepare for when your students are back on campus and what that new reality might look like, feel free to request a 1-on-1 call with one of our strategists today!