Pediatric infectious disease experts at Children’s Mercy Hospital say schools in Kansas and Missouri need to reopen this fall because not being in school is riskier for most kids than the coronavirus.
Too many students don’t have access to the devices, bandwidth or supervision they need to participate fully in remote learning, Dr. Jennifer Schuster said during a recent webinar for educators.
“Remote learning is not a viable, permanent option for going back to school in the fall,” she said.
Young people are less susceptible to COVID-19, Schuster said, and countries like Australia have been able to reopen schools without a spike in child-to-adult transmissions.
On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a strong statement in support of school re-entry, as long as districts have a plan to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure for students, parents and teachers.
Still, school will likely look a lot different than it did in March. Here’s what Children’s Mercy is recommending, though Schuster and the other experts cautioned that their advice could change between now and the first day of school as understanding of the coronavirus evolves.
When schools closed in March, educators were worried about desks and monkey bars making students sick. While it’s important to sanitize high-touch surfaces, it turns out COVID-19 is more likely to spread via respiratory droplets passed between people in close proximity to one another.
“So this is where handwashing is key ... and not touching your face, nose and mouth,” Schuster said.
Luke Gard, an environmental hygienist who helps schools improve conditions that affect student health and performance, said schools will need to build in time for handwashing.
“We may set up a schedule where literally every hour we’re having our kids wash their hands,” Gard said. “We set an alarm in the classroom, we go up, and we wash our hands.”
Educators already know to space desks six feet apart, but they also need to be thinking about how to get students to classrooms safely.
“One of the big things is how you’re going to manage your building,” said Director of Community Health Initiatives Margo Quiriconi at Children’s Mercy. “You’re not going to be able to come in through all of the entrances that you’ve done before. You’re also going to need pathways through the building to maintain that six feet apart and stop the congestion.”
Students should be socially distanced on school buses, too. If students wear face masks, they can ride one per bench, alternating aisle and window seats between rows.
But unmasked students should only be seated every other row on alternate sides, reducing the capacity of a standard, 13-row school bus from 52 passengers to just seven.
Face masks are a safe and effective way to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Schuster said, and most children and adults should wear them in public.
“There is no evidence that wearing a mask all day lowers your oxygen,” she said. “We are universally masking in the hospital. We’re a pediatric hospital, and our patients are masking as they come into the hospital.”
Schuster said some students will be too young to understand masking requirements, and some disabilities will prevent students from learning while wearing a mask. But in general, schools should follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for face masks, as well as any local orders.
Kansas City, Missouri, has made masks mandatory in many public places for at least the next two weeks. Wyandotte County will also begin requiring masks be worn in public starting Tuesday, June 30.
There will be teachers who are afraid to return to work because of the pandemic, said Dr. Simone Moody, a pediatric behavioral specialist. “Schools need to explicitly list mental health supports available to staff.”
Those supports could be formal, such as an Employee Assistance Program, or informal, such as a teacher support group.
But Moody says schools need to take care of teachers so that they can take care of students, many of whom are struggling without the structure of school in their lives.
There’s been an alarming drop in calls to child abuse hotlines since the pandemic began because mandated reporters—like teachers and school counselors—aren’t in as frequent contact with families. And families that may have been doing alright before the pandemic might be in crisis now, Moody warned.
“If you’re noticing that a student’s emotional or behavioral functioning has significantly changed for the worse compared to previous school years, that’s a red flag,” she said.
Schools won’t be able to eliminate all risk, said athletic trainer Nicole Fillingame, especially when it comes to sports and activities.
“And we may come out with some of these recommendations and have to adjust as we move through the phases,” she added.
Fillingame said schools need to figure out who will screen student-athletes and coaches for COVID-19 – and who will inform parents if someone on their child’s team tests positive. In the meantime, schools will need to rethink how they distribute equipment and even water during sweaty sports practices.
To underscore the challenge, the Shawnee Mission School District on Friday confirmed that two student-athletes at Shawnee Mission East who had been working out this summer for fall sports had tested positive for COVID-19.
During their webinar last week, the Children’s Mercy experts told educators they were still working through the guidance for other activities, especially choir, as singing is a particularly effective way to transmit the respiratory droplets that cause COVID-19.