Safety first

-by Timothy Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Schools are working out how to ensure that all students—without exception—have access to quality education in the context of a pandemic that forced most schools to close their buildings, teach kindergarten via Zoom, and hold drive-through graduation ceremonies.  The sheer size of what needed to happen to keep children safe and engaged with school required physical, mental, and emotional labor well beyond what is already expected of educators.

Now that most schools are on summer break, I hope that everyone involved with teaching and learning takes a deep breath, then another, and perhaps three more. This was hard. Truthfully, the only thing harder than what we all just did (and I’d say did rather well, given the scope of change and lack of training to do it) is to contemplate what happens when summer is over. 

Much of the conversation about reopening schools is about how to meet students’ social and emotional needs or whether school should happen online or in person. All important problems to solve. And, all miss the most important point: nothing happens in a school, classroom, or kitchen table until everyone involved believes that they are safe. Here are three strategies that will enhance your ability to keep your community as safe as possible in the fall:

Get informed.

Summer has often been a good time for professional reading. Whether you are a district, school, or classroom leader, now is the time to read guidelines from authoritative sources for keeping students and staff safe.

Here are a few places to start:

Get prepared.

The main strategies for minimizing risk of COVID-19 infection are about screening,

Planning for a healthy and safe school is about screening, scheduling, and sanitizing.
Planning for a healthy and safe school is about screening, scheduling, and sanitizing.

scheduling, and sanitizing

It is likely that your local health department will recommend universal screening prior to entering your campus. Now is the time to think through how that process will work and what resources you will need to make screening effective. If the plan is to take temperatures, you’ll need thermometers, and likely more than you have on hand right now. You’ll need masks, gloves, and questionnaires, and time to train staff to use them properly. If you know that you’re not the best at the small details, recruit the staff that can help and ask them to work out how the lines will work, who will put the cones six feet apart, and where students and staff will go once they’re through the screening stations. Finally, schools must have a place to isolate students, staff, or visitors develop symptoms during the school day that feels safe and respects the dignity of students who may possibly have been infected.

Because COVID loves crowds, most authoritative resources for reopening schools recommend scheduling strategies to reduce the number of people together at one time. One scheduling strategy is to stagger arrival times. Many schools are hesitant to do this because of siblings enrolled in different grades. The solution is to stagger arrival times first by family and then by grade. Use your school information system to print a roster of students, sort them by family, and then assign those students to classrooms. Now that students are already pre-sorted by sibling, you can stagger arrival times by family and reduce the number of children arriving at screening stations at once. 

Other scheduling strategies include having students eat by class instead of in a cafeteria, and scheduling whole-school assemblies to occur via video or over the public address system. Specialist teachers should visit classrooms instead of whole classes in the school visiting specialist teachers. Middle and high school leadership teams should schedule groups of students to move as a class as much as possible, increase the spaces available for students to eat lunch, and work with students to understand the importance of eating in the same space with the same people.

Some ideas, such as ‘every other day’ schedules, are less supported by evidence. This is because COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for more than one day, and because plans that bring different groups of children into the same room actually increase the likelihood that a teacher will be exposed to COVID-19 and then transmit the virus to children. When creating schedules, make sure that your team isn’t increasing risk by introducing more people into the same group.

Sanitizing is also an essential component of every reopening plan from authoritative sources. The first resource listed above, Guidance for cleaning and disinfecting: public spaces, workplaces, businesses, schools, and homes. May, 2020. Centers for Disease Control, not only explains what must be cleaned, with what chemicals, and how often to do it, but also explains what is not important to clean. Because supplies are limited, schools should focus on cleaning high-contact hard surfaces, especially indoors. According to the CDC, cleaning sidewalks with disinfectant is unnecessary and likely takes away from time, effort, and resources that are better spent making sure doorknobs, desks, and chairs are thoroughly cleaned. Read the document for complete information. It’s helpful.

Another aspect of sanitizing is masks. Surprisingly, none of the resources specifically mention wearing masks. When I looked into it more deeply, I discovered that the reason appears to be low compliance among students. As an educator, this makes little sense to me. We teach students in all grades to walk on the right side of the hallway, to put lunch trays away in the correct space, and to wash their hands after using the bathroom. If we explicitly teach students why they need to wear a mask, how to wear the mask effectively, and reinforce students who wear masks the way they have been taught to wear them, students and staff are far more likely to comply with what  virtually every public health organization around the world recommends as a key strategy for reducing COVID-19 transmission.

Get visible.

Nothing—not one thing—happens in our schools until our staff, students, and families believe and trust that school is a safe place to be.

Nothing—not one thing—happens in our schools until our staff, students, and families believe and trust that school is a safe place to be. Trust doesn’t happen by accident. Rather, trust is the result of intentional communication to address everyone’s legitimate need for safety. Once your school or district has a plan, communicate that plan widely. Make it part of your newsletters and start posting signs, schedules, and expectations now. Take videos of your staff learning the new protocols and setting up screening stations. Post links to resources for where to get masks and how to wear them. Our students, families, and staff deserve to know that someone is in charge of this and that the plan for the fall exists ‘in real life,’ not on paper. 

Creating safe learning environments has always been our first job as educators. View your safety plan as an opportunity to live your values out loud and to build your school’s or your district’s reputation as a competent organization that can do what is necessary to put safety first.

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