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What Will Schools Look Like When They Reopen?


Protecting Students, Teachers, and Staff is a Massive Challenge

The CDC, along with state and local health departments, are issuing a list of reopening guidelines that will require already cash-strapped school districts to collectively spend close to $25B on personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. Many older schools need to upgrade antiquated ventilation systems. If, in spite of these measures, schools reopen only to shut down again, these are investments that may never pay off.

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Reopening Presents Complex Logistics of Safety and Risk

Like employers, school administrators feel enormous pressure to reopen. It comes from school boards who worry about their district’s bottom line. It comes from parents who worry about their children’s education — and have no access to childcare while they go to work. And it comes from the knowledge that more than nine million children lack internet access at home for online instruction.

Two students walking after class, smiling, wearing glasses, backpack, holding books with friends following in the background.

Many colleges may be forced to close permanently if they can’t bring students, teachers, and staff to campus safely. Yet, thousands of positive cases have already erupted on scores of newly reopened campuses. And the danger is not just to students. Family members are at risk as are college workforces, and surrounding communities.

It’s no wonder only about 39 percent of parents consider it safe for kids to go back into school. Teachers face the choice between a paycheck and entering a viral war zone every day, risking constant exposure to hundreds of kids and dozens of other teachers. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KKF) study, nearly 1.5 million teachers have a condition that puts them at increased risk of serious illness from COVID. A separate KFF study  found that 3.3M adults age 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.When it comes to risk, schools are like cruise ships that don’t go anywhere. Lots of people in enclosed spaces with poor air circulation for prolonged periods. Other potential vectors of infection include administrative and custodial staff, bus drivers, classroom aides, cafeteria workers, nurses, and substitute teachers. And these individuals aren’t confined to a single classroom for most of the day, so the additional risk they contribute is impossible to calculate.

Can Schools Reopen Safely?

Not without very well thought out and strictly enforced procedures. And, even with that, some schools within a district may have to remain closed. Those, for example, with older HVAC systems that are simply too expensive to upgrade.

Here’s what it will take for schools to reopen:

  • Enhanced sanitation protocols
  • Classrooms configured to allow socially distant seating
  • Strict adherence to personal sanitation best practices: masks, frequent hand washing, use of hand sanitizer
  • At home symptom screening
  • Cancellation of sports programs and extracurricular activities
  • COVID testing for 
    • Individuals with symptoms
    • Asymptomatic individuals with known exposure to COVID
  • Immediate separation of students and staff with symptoms from the general population
  • Temperature surveillance
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