How to go Back to School Series
Part 1 of 3: Public Health and Preparation
School districts are increasingly concerned about how COVID-19 will affect protocols and practices when students return to school. The Institute for Education Innovation has started a dialogue with Superintendents about what to do and how to prepare. Hazel Health was asked to respond with the medical perspective on what to consider when thinking about re-opening.
Hazel Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Rob Darzynkiewicz, and Hazel Cofounder/Head of Education, Raquel Antunez, collaborated in this 3-part Q&A format to address questions asked by superintendents, and provide clarity on what steps districts might consider.
Questions sourced directly from IEI’s Superintendent Partners
Q: Do you think that the number of COVID-19 cases needs to get down to zero before we can return to school safely? I am concerned that COVID-19 will linger for a bit, perhaps through the summer and into the fall.
- Families across the country are starting to plan for and envision a world where COVID-19 is here with us for many more months (if not years) until proper testing, treatment and vaccinations are available to all.
- While we wait and learn more about how this virus works and the impact of community spread, we can start finding creative solutions to protect students and teachers in order to consider reopening schools. Standard screenings for sickness, guidelines for classrooms, and social distancing are all relevant tools we could use to minimize outbreaks and return to in-person learning.
- Now is the time to start reviewing district health policies to clarify when districts might ask children to remain at home, as well as provide ongoing support systems for families conducting virtual learning. Interconnectivity of other services is also a consideration so that parents and caretakers feel supported if they need to change home or work schedules in reaction to public health changes.
- There’s a possibility that increased cases could cycle back in the fall and winter months. This new world could be our new normal for an extended period of time, so it is time to focus on creating a sense of normalcy with appropriate safety precautions. We are launching new tools to help families and districts assess daily safety, such as allowing students to “check-in” to see if it is safe to attend that day.
Q: Do you anticipate that a new vaccination will result from this crisis? We don’t want this thing to “boomerang” and come back at some point, and a vaccination seems imminent.
- We do anticipate that a vaccine is coming, however, it may take 18-months or longer. In addition to the development of an effective vaccine, we also will need to wait for the manufacturing and distribution of billions of doses. Due to those factors, we don’t believe that a vaccine will be widely available by the fall when schools might be considering how to return to in-person learning.
- Right now, the US is working to flatten the curve—but we’re only preventing clusters, not preventing more cases. Without a vaccine, we could have more hot spots and a prolonged change to our education, health, and economic systems. The virus will continue to spread until we develop the fastest way to address it with a safe, reliable vaccine.
- Once a vaccine becomes widely available, there’s a high probability that it may be added to the list of required school vaccines. In the meantime, we are working to find creative ways to keep students safe and healthy and lower community spread. Our partner districts are considering innovative ideas like block schedules; an elongated day; staggering schedules; delineating how much can be done at home versus at school, and some are even considering outposts for services or learning.
Q: What procedures will need to be in place prior to opening in order to create a safe environment for students and staff? We need plenty of time to plan, purchase safety equipment, and arrange for scheduling that meets new standards.
- From a high level, we’re helping districts consider what happens outside of the school day and even the school year when developing procedures. For example, what role could schools play in developing or adhering to guidelines that positively influence the broader community? Within the school setting, providing teachers with ample prep time to learn and adjust to how a reopening might work will be useful.
- From the medical perspective, Hazel has identified a few key areas of focus when deciding how to potentially reopen in your community. Here are some things we’re discussing with partner districts to promote the health and safety of both students and faculty:
1. Prevent Spread: Consider how you might leverage temperature screenings for students and employees, as well as policies on returning to school after recovering from illness. Evaluate if documentation needs updating surrounding doctors’ notes, actions to take when someone is sick, and how parents can determine when it is the right time to return to school.
2. Practice Social Distancing: Take a look at the best way your district can make classrooms and gathering spaces safer according to CDC guidelines on social distancing and groups. Systems could be created to stagger students or even have them stay in one classroom for the duration of the day rather than moving from room to room.
3. Reduce Exposure: Evaluate your particular situation and space options within your district and schools when thinking about hosting any larger gatherings. For example, could outdoor spaces be used more for gatherings that would normally happen in the gym or auditorium?
4. Disinfect: Regular disinfecting procedures are important for areas occupied by students each day. Consider how else you can encourage new disinfection habits for students, staff and parents as it relates to coming and going each day. One idea is to set up disinfecting stations for frequently used objects.
5. Wear Appropriate PPE: The guidance around PPE has changed throughout this process and will continue to evolve. Clear and simple reminders and guidelines for your district, that are relevant for your community, will help everyone understand what to do.
6. Enable Healthcare Access: One of the best ways to help support students and families during this pandemic is to increase access to physical and mental healthcare resources. An on-going, sustainable approach to at-home and at-school virtual care can help manage the health of your students and help you react to early indicators of community spread or other related issues.
This is a lot for schools to take on. Remember you don’t have to do it all alone! We are here to support you and your faculty. With Hazel, you can reach a doctor with the touch of a button. Our medical staff is here to provide proper guidance to families and reinforce individual school policies surrounding staying safe, as well as see students for acute issues, document fevers, and provide local resources for testing and screening.