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NC Education Lawyer Blog

  • Writer's pictureNeubia Harris

Approaches for Safely Reopening Schools

Adopted from the Department of Education Covid-19 Handbook

Every student deserves the opportunity to receive a high quality education. Due to COVID-19, schools worldwide were shut down, forcing restricted social interaction. These limitations have had a significant impact on children’s academic, social, emotional, and mental needs. For some at-risk populations, virtual learning has posed limitations to services students may receive in school, as well as food programs and sports.

While returning fully to school in person is the goal, most places have adapted a hybrid model which features a couple days in-person and the rest of the week virtual. In order to safely reopen, schools need to develop measures and find resources to create a strategy that will ensure a high level of health safety. The main goal of these approaches is to reduce the spread and contraction of COVID-19 to students and staff amid reopening. There are 5 key strategies identified to avoid the transmission of COVID-19:

  1. universal and proper mask wearing;

  2. physical distancing;

  3. handwashing and respiratory etiquette;

  4. cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, including proper ventilation; and

  5. contract tracing combined with isolation and quarantine.

Staff and students should continue wearing masks, social distancing and practicing screening testing. While vaccines are not required, they are also considered important. Schools are able to partner with local health agencies to provide testing to students and their families, and where applicable by law, to limit the transmission from those who have tested positive. While these practices are considered most important, here is a list of all practices and their definitions as related to the safe reopening of schools. District and school leaders should follow these practices when planning for the safe reopening of schools.

I. Look at the Data

District and school leaders should continue monitoring the rates of positive cases and the CDC color phase of transmission for the area based on the number of new cases in 7 days per 100,000 people, and the percentage of positive tests. Color phases are as follows: blue (low), yellow (moderate), orange (substantial), and red (high).

  • In the blue (low) phase, K-12 schools can reopen fully in person while following the 5 key strategies and with proper masking and six foot distancing, with sports and extracurricular activities being held within six feet if possible.

  • In the yellow (moderate) phase, K-12 schools can reopen fully in person while following the 5 key strategies and with proper masking and six foot distancing with sports and extracurricular activities only being held when six foot distancing can be maintained.

  • In the orange (substantial) phase, schools can reopen for hybrid learning or reduced attendance while following the 5 key strategies with proper masking and six foot distancing. Sports and extracurriculars should only occur outdoors with six foot distancing.

  • In the red (high) phase, with screen testing, schools can open for hybrid learning or reduced attendance while following the 5 key strategies, with proper masking and six foot distance required. Sports and extracurriculars should be postponed or held virtually.

  • In the red (high) phase without screen testing, elementary schools can open for hybrid learning or reduced attendance following the 5 key strategies with proper masking and six foot distance. Middle and high schools should remain virtual unless strict implementation of key strategies and low cases among students/teachers/staff. All K-12 sports and extracurricular activities should be postponed or held virtually.

II. Universal Masking

Masks should cover the nose and mouth, unless otherwise directed. You should wash your hands prior to putting on a mask, and after taking one off. You should dispose of masks in designated areas determined by the facility, and you should not touch your mask while wearing it. In addition to mask wearing, proper hand washing is essential and should include the use of soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds, or use of a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Schools should build new routines that include time for handwashing with soap and water. The CDC has created hand-washing fact sheets to encourage and educate students and their families on handwashing.

Schools should develop policies for addressing masking concerns for students who are limited in their ability to obtain or wash masks, and should provide masks to students who can not obtain one or have forgotten one. Educators should also consider how and when to give students a break from face mask wearing when needed, such as in response to sensory needs. Students who are unable to wear masks due to a disability, may still return to school if following other safety strategies. Masks should be worn by all students, staff and educators and around anyone you don’t know or if taking care of someone with covid-19. Masks should not be worn by those under 2, those with a disability, or those who determined by a workplace assessment, would create a risk to health. In such instances, the CDC has recommended some adaptations and alternatives.

III. Planned Use of Space

Educators, staff and community leaders must identify how to maintain six foot distancing and make adjustments to classroom layouts. Other community locations may be used to maintain physical distancing. Educators and staff must collaborate to create new routines that will ensure six foot physical distancing is maintained. Reducing the number of students in the room, facing desks in the same direction, modifying learning stations to include fewer students, removing non-essential furniture, and limiting the use of paper for assignment completion are a few ways to maintain a six foot distance in the classroom. The CDC has recommended some ways to encourage and maintain a six foot distance. Physical distancing also applies to transportation, with students being placed in seats by themselves, assigning students to the same seat everyday, or reserving seats for students with a disability as possible options.

IV. Collaborate with Local Health Agencies (where applicable by law)

Districts and schools should collaborate with local health departments and/or agencies on matters such as testing for symptomatic students and staff and determining ways to communicate with families about symptom check policies and tools must occur. For those who test positive, this collaboration is important for contact tracing. This collaboration will also include the discussion of vaccine requirements. While staff and educators may be vaccinated, strategies must still be practiced to protect those who are not vaccinated or are not fully vaccinated.

V. Improved Cleaning and Ventilation Measures

Opening windows and doors, including on busses and other vehicles of transportation, and using fans when possible, is one step, but also routinely cleaning facilities especially high touch and high shared areas. Assessments of current ventilation structures to improve ventilation should also be done. For more information about CDC ventilation tools, click here.

VI. Determine Sport and Extracurricular Activity Format

In person learning should supersede in person sports and extracurricular activities based on transmission rates. When possible, activities should be held outdoors such as when playing instruments or singing. Masks should continue to be worn by all staff and students. When indoors, activities should be held in well ventilated areas. However, outdoor activities and sports should be the preference over indoor activities and sports. When considering sports, those with the least amount of physical contact should be prioritized, in addition to mask wearing. Limiting interactions between different schools, the use of locker rooms, and equipment sharing is also important for reducing transmission rates of covid-19. The CDC suggests indoor sports be postponed or held virtually for those in areas with high transmission rates. Districts and schools must operate all athletic activities consistent with Federal civil rights laws (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act) and Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. School leaders may need to consult with State and local legal advisors on equity matters (U.S Department of Education, 2021).

The reopening of schools should be based on community transmission rates and the ability to practice strategies needed for safety. While schools may not be open to all students, leaders and educators can create a plan to determine when and how to safely return all students. The CDC K-12 Operational Strategy indicates that, with full and consistent implementation of mitigation strategies, schools can safely offer in-person learning for at least some students, or even some in-person instruction for all students when operating in a hybrid model, even when community transmission levels are high. However, this requires universal and correct wearing of masks, physical distancing, and other mitigation practices that also take into consideration disability-related accommodations. Those who have Individual Education Programs (“IEPs) or 504 plans must be given great consideration, and educators and leaders must develop ways to return the greatest number of students with a disability back into the classroom. Behavioral techniques and working with mental health and behavioral agencies can be helpful in returning some of these students and providing the support they need.

Even with schools reopening for in-person learning, remember to check for symptoms at home before coming in for work or sending students to school. Symptoms include:

  • a fever of 100.4 degree Fahrenheit or higher;

  • sore throat;

  • cough or a change in cough for those with allergies or asthma;

  • loss of taste or smell;

  • difficulty breathing or a change in difficulty level in those with asthma;

  • diarrhea or vomiting; and/or

  • new onset of headache, especially with a fever.

The safety of all staff, students, and educators is highly important in addition to the education of students. Engaging the entire community is essential for effective reopening and should include not only school personnel but parents as well, legal representatives, and representatives from different interest areas such as English language learners and students with disabilities. Schools and school districts should continue to reach out to parents and families of all students, especially those who have been historically underserved (students of color, students in foster care, students experiencing homelessness), to communicate the health and safety measures being implemented and to encourage confidence, support and trust between students, staff, and their families. Educational leaders should continue to monitor the transmission of covid-19, and understand its impact and trauma on students, their families and school staff, while continuing to follow and implement the above mentioned safety measures to ensure the quickest, safest return to in person learning for all.


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