While the school year is currently winding down, officials are looking ahead to fall semester and beyond as they plan the future of their educational operations. Concerns over a continued COVID-19 presence has caused some educational institutions to go virtual for the time being, while others are still pondering a in-person approach.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released new guidelines addressing school reopenings and day camps. The interim guidance applies to communities with “low levels of COVID-19 spread and those with confidence that the incidence of infection is genuinely low…”
The school guidelines are part of a larger set of guidelines developed by the CDC, totaling approximately 60 pages. These guidelines represent the most extensive set of guidance released by the CDC to date. In addition to schools, the guidelines address reopening “nonessential businesses” and other sectors.
Schools are encouraged to open up gradually, using a step-by-step scale-up. The CDC outlined three steps for increasing the scale of school operations in order to mitigate the possibility of COVID-19 infection and transmission. According to the agency, the level of restriction, or “mitigation,” decreases across the three steps.
In Step 1, the CDC advises that schools that are currently closed to remain closed in order to continue e-learning or distance learning. The agency encourages district to support student services, including meal programs, when “feasible.”
The CDC also discusses camps, stating that camps should be restricted during Step 1 to children of essential workers and to children who “live in the local geographic area only.”
Once Step 2 is reached, schools are permitted to remain open with “enhanced social distancing measures.” This step applies for children who live in the local geographic area only, as well.
Step 3 allows schools to remain open with distancing measure and “restrict attendance to those from limited transmission areas only.”
State officials will ultimately make the final decisions on school closures, but the CDC advises schools to maintain constant communications with local and state authorities to determine the proper level of caution and mitigation levels in each community.
Students and staff who are at a higher risk of severe illness should be provided options for remote work and virtual learning, the CDC advises. This also applies to teachers, staff and students who live in higher transmission areas.
During both Step 1 and 2, schools should limit the opportunities for transmission by keeping the same groups of students with the same staff as much as possible and restrict the mixing of student/staff groups. The CDC advises that this restriction be in place all day for younger children and “as much as possible for older children.”
All field trips and extracurricular activities are suggested to be canceled in Step 1 with limited gatherings, events and extracurricular activities in Step 2. During the second step, these activities should be limited to those in which social distancing can be maintained.
Schools also are encouraged to rearrange classrooms to have desks six-feet apart, turn desks in the same direction and close communal-use spaces such as playgrounds, if possible. The agency also suggests serving meals in classrooms instead of cafeterias.
Step 3 allows for some of these restrictions to be relaxed, allowing some mixing between student groups and increasing gatherings and extracurricular activities, while still restricting individuals from high transmission areas.