Breaking down the Roadmap to Reopening Schools

This post was originally published here.

The typical school day has looked mostly the same for years. Until March, that is. When schools were closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders and teachers adapted quickly to care for and teach youth as effectively as possible.

But today, school districts face the herculean task of re-configuring schedules, classes and procedures for the coming school year. And they have to do it all without any certain answers on the coronavirus’ elusive trajectory.

Amidst the uncertainty, the Arizona Department of Education has released a Roadmap for Reopening Schools to help educators prepare. These suggestions will help leaders make plans for the future and leaves room for districts to leverage strategies that are most appropriate for their community.

Guidance is included for four scenarios:

  1. Students attending class in their school
  2. Some students attend in-person and others utilize distance learning
  3. All students are using distance learning initially, with the potential to return to school buildings eventually
  4. Students alternate between in-person and distance learning depending on guidance from health officials

Because so much remains up in the air, districts are tackling plans for each of the four scenarios. They’ll have more clarity as we move closer to the start of the school year, which is right around the corner. Here are some key takeaways from the Roadmap:

Overall instruction for the 2020-21 school year

  • The documents were developed to aid local leaders in planning for the future. The ideas included are not mandatory and any instructions can be modified to fit local needs and preferences. School district and charter school leaders will make the final decisions about when, where and how schools will open.
  • Planning will need to cover a variety of contingencies, depending on the spread of the virus, available staff, etc.
  • Planning should cover emergency closures like the one that happened in the spring of 2020. This should include an assessment of the 2020 closure. The resulting Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) will guide operations in the event of an unexpected closure.

Budget considerations

  • Schools receive funding based on the number of students they’re serving 100 days into the school year and how many days/hours those students spend in instruction time. There are budgetary weights for special considerations, including special needs students and for students living in poverty.
  • The current situation could create devastating budget shortfalls for schools as students opt for virtual learning or homeschooling. Illness and virus concerns could also create attendance drops. Schools would need funding predictability to continue to innovate ways to provide instruction during the pandemic, as well as the ability to offer online instruction, which typically requires a lengthy approval process. These concerns were recently addressed by the Governor via an Executive Order that provides CARES Act funding and additional flexibility to schools.
  • According to estimates by the Learning Policy Institute, COVID-19 will cost schools upwards of $41 billion nationwide. Here in Arizona, Dysart Unified School District anticipates spending $120,000 on touchless thermometers alone. A 60-day supply of hand sanitizer is estimated at $21,000 and that doesn’t include countless other costs for disinfecting school common areas and student supplies and the many other far-reaching news needs in the district. Pendergast Elementary School Districts estimates they’ll spend $1.2 million on face shields, $413,000 on hand sanitizer, and $186,000 on cleaning supplies. And those are just a few of the new costs associated with opening schools amid an ongoing pandemic.

Determining whether to open physical locations

  • The CDC recommends leaders consider the following before opening school buildings:
    • “Will reopening be consistent with applicable state and local orders?
    • Is the school ready to protect children and employees at higher risk for severe illness?
    • Are you able to screen students and employees, upon arrival, for symptoms and history of exposure?”
  • Before opening, the CDC also recommends putting processes in place to ensure safety as much as possible. This could include encouraging regular hand washing, wearing a mask, physical distancing, daily symptom checks, and more.
  • Schools that lack the space or other resources to accommodate physical distancing of 6 feet, should encourage the use of face coverings in both school facilities and on buses.
  • Some districts, including Cartwright School District and Alhambra School District have opted for four-day school weeks to help alleviate budget pressures and create a dedicated school deep-cleaning day.

Physical distancing

  • The CDC recommends keeping people at least 6 feet apart. Schools will need to consider this while planning for transportation, classroom instruction, mealtime, extracurriculars and any before- or after-school care.
  • To accomplish distancing, schools may consider alternate seating arrangements, physical partitions and smaller class sizes. Staggered start times might also be used to limit interaction between grades.
  • Communal spaces should be sanitized often or closed altogether.
  • School leaders will need to consider modifications to breakfast and lunch service to accommodate distancing. Pre-plated meals or in-classroom lunchtimes may be options.

Reducing the spread of the virus

  • For efforts to reduce the spread of the virus, what happens at home will be just as important as what happens in schools. Leaders should remind students and staff to stay home if they have symptoms or have been exposed to someone who does.
  • Planning should take into consideration those who are immunocompromised or have other disabilities that may make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.
  • Disciplinarily policies should be reviewed to reduce the use of tactics that remove students from the classroom as students will have already missed so much classroom time.
  • Students should be reminded of proper handwashing technique and provided plenty of soap, hand sanitizer, and facial tissue.
  • Parents and students should expect to see regular messages on reducing the spread of COVID-19.
  • Schools should regularly disinfect common spaces and things students touch, including door handles and drinking fountains. Leaders should also minimize sharing objects that can’t be easily cleaned, including books, toys and electronics. School schedules might need to be altered to allow for cleaning of those items that can be disinfected between uses.
  • Ventilation and water systems should be considered.

School operations

  • Meetings, gatherings and field trips should be undertaken virtually where possible and if not, physical distancing is advisable.
  • Visitors, volunteers and other nonessential guests will be limited, if allowed at all.
  • Special considerations should be made for the health of high-risk individuals as well as the privacy of those at high risk for infection and complications.
  • Creating static groups could help to limit interactions between students/staff and contain any potential spread.
  • When planning communications, schools should remember local laws and privacy policies.
  • Sick leave and attendance policies should be reviewed to ensure flexibility.
  • Leaders are encouraged to share resources with families that support mental health, while also training staff on best practices.

Technology

  • Many schools and districts have already assessed what technology they have available for students and what students have access to in the home. This will continue if closures are once again needed.
  • Leaders will need to determine how they’ll work with youth who are too young or don’t have dedicated internet-connected devices at home.
  • Many districts have already equipped students with a device and/or Wi-Fi access. Where possible, more should consider this to facilitate distance learning.
  • Schools will also need to consider language services that will allow educators to communicate with students and parents on everything from student assignments and progress to technical assistance.
  • Office hours and educator availability will also be critical to student success.
  • In-school technology should be used with physical distancing in mind and disinfected on a regular basis.

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