As COVID vaccinations accelerate and the US inches its way towards normalcy, schools across the country are preparing to bring students back to the classroom full-time. K-12 education has suffered significant hurdles over the past year, with most schools balancing a mix of both online and in-person instruction. For school administrators, the return to the classroom is both welcome and challenging.
What COVID Vaccines Mean for School ReopeningDespite vaccine progress, COVID-19 risks remain and will persist until a critical mass of the population has been fully vaccinated, a reality that remains months into the future. Furthermore, administrators must grapple with whether to require teachers and staff to be vaccinated andwhether and how to track vaccinations.
Another key challenge is that children are still not yet able to be vaccinated, further necessitating continued mask usage, thorough cleaning, and physical distancing. While children are not typically at risk for severe COVID complications, they can still become a vector for the disease. On March 31, 2021,Pfizer, Inc. and BioNTech SE became the first vaccine companies to announce that their vaccine is safe and effective for use in 12- to 15-year olds (it was previously only studied in individuals ages 16 and older).
However, additional testing is required to confirm vaccine safety and efficacy for children under the age of 12. Furthermore, the vaccine still needs to be approved by the FDA for use in the younger demographic, a process that can take several weeks. Once vaccinations are more broadly available to children, school administrations will also need to weigh the challenges and benefits of requiring COVID vaccination for school enrollment, and what exceptions, if any, may apply.
While there are many outstanding questions, school reopening is already happening, and administrators must act promptly to ensure the safety of their students and staff. Parents, understandably, have heightened concern and high expectations for their children’s health and safety at school. This means schools will need to ramp up cleaning, clarify safety protocols, and prioritize frequent, transparent communication with families in their districts.
The following are 7 practical steps schools can take now to prepare for a safe return to the classroom.
Improve Classroom Ventilation
- Open windows and doors whenever possible, even if it’s just a crack.
- Place child-safe fans in the windows to help circulate the air, pulling clean air while drawing out potentially contaminated air.
- Hold classroom activities outdoors, weather-permitting.
- Ensure your HVAC system is serviced and up-to-code, and reduce HVAC recirculation where possible.
- Use air purifiers with HEPA filtration, and replace filters frequently according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
See a complete list of recommended ventilation strategies for schools on the CDC website.
2. Rethink the Classroom Layout
The CDC now recommends that students in elementary schools should maintain a minimum of 3 feet of physical distance from each other. This is lower than the previously recommended 6 feet of distance, but is still significant enough that it may require rethinking your classroom layouts. Meanwhile, middle and high school students are advised to maintain 3 feet apart in areas with minimal community spread, while those in areas with high transmission should continue to maintain 6 feet of physical distance. Consider adding tape on the floors, signs on the walls, and one-way routes through hallways to help students visualize and remember to maintain space between themselves and others.
3. Be Strategic About Class Scheduling and Cohorting
Separating large classes into smaller cohorts or “pods” is another effective way to mitigate the risk of COVID transmission as schools reopen (CDC). These cohorts are distinct groups of students that stay together throughout the school day with minimal interaction with other cohorts. Keeping the groups small and contained reduces the overall risk of exposure to COVID-19, makes it easier to contact trace if an individual does become ill, and reduces disruptions from a positive test result by limiting the number of students and teachers that need to quarantine or isolate to a single cohort, instead of the entire school.
4. Ensure Proper Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Even as vaccines become more widely available, personal protective equipment remains a must for any indoor space shared with people outside of their household. This is especially important in scenarios where it is difficult to maintain 6 feet of physical distance. As a result, students and teachers should continue to wear well-fitting masks that completely cover both the nose and mouth without slippage.
Students and teachers should have their own masks, and each person should bring a spare mask. Consider also having extra disposable masks on hand in both child and adult sizes, in the event of forgotten, lost, or damaged masks. In addition, ensure students have a clean, dedicated space to store their masks when not in use (for example, when eating), and teach students how to properly remove masks, including hand hygiene when handling their masks. And remember that even with masks, students and teachers should stay home if they are sick or have been exposed to the virus.
5. Prioritize Cleaning and Disinfecting
Maintaining a clean, healthy, and safe environment for your students requires consistent and thorough cleaning and disinfecting. Make a cleaning routine and stick to it. For example, high touch surfaces like doorknobs, sink handles, and other bathroom fixtures must be disinfected frequently throughout the day. In addition, at a minimum, shared surfaces like desks, workstations, and equipment should be disinfected prior to a new group of students using the space. Keep sufficient cleaning supplies on hand to maintain these routines. See more classroom cleaning best practices on the CDC website.
6. Make a Plan for Vaccinations
The decentralized rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines has made it difficult for schools to track who has received, or refused, a vaccine. Consider whether your school will require teacher (and eventually, student) vaccination, and whether that is currently feasible in your district. If you plan to mandate vaccines, make a plan for how you will track this information, as well as how to handle requests for exceptions, whether for medical or religious reasons.
7. Clearly Articulate Your School’s Policies
Finally, be sure to communicate your school’s COVID-19 policies clearly and often. This could include regular emails to teachers and parents, visual signage throughout the school grounds, and posts on your website.