Virus Outbreak Britain Schools Reopening

A classroom with safely spaced desks laid out before the possible reopening of Lostock Hall Primary school in Poynton near Manchester, England.

"We know this not just a novel virus, but a really novel situation for all families and educators."

As one subset of the Reopening Schools Working Group continues its work Tuesday night, they're examining scenarios and safeguards that need to be in place in order to get children back in the classroom comfortably, if spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 were to remain moderate this fall.

The Health and Wellness group is co-chaired, by Michael Rodriguez, associate Secretary of the Delaware Department of Education, and Meghan Walls, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours/A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children.

"We can't just say 'we need to do these things;' we need to make sure we have the staff to do these things. Our work group is specifically tasked with the 'what,' which means that part of the 'why' is going to have to be figured out between [the Department of Education], and districts, and funding," said Walls. "But our true charge and our job is to figure out things should be in place, optimally, to allow kids to go back to school safely, to allow educators to feel comfortable, and parents to feel comfortable."

Last week and this week, the group discussed conditions of Scenario 2, where the spread of the virus is an R0 of one--which means for every one person that's infected, they infect one other person.

If that scenario exists this fall, class sizes could need to be reduced to 20 students with staggered school schedules--that include both in-classroom time and time at-home virtual learning. The group didn't get into specifics, but what could happen:

"Either you go a few days, then you're home virtually learning. In some states, they've done one group goes one week, then not the next week," she said. "If we can't have the 25 kids in a classroom, what are we going to do then to try to get kids in school some of the time?"

"Part of this is also -- how many classrooms do we have in each schools? Can we actually space those desks 6 ft. away?"

The group is considering a parent survey to see what they think of some of these ideas.

"I think, right now, what we're trying to do is figure out how to get kids back in school, at least some of the time. Right now, we're all virtual. So right now, families are having to deal with this all day every day, and our hope is to move forward past that, but I think those are things we're going to have to think about and probably have conversations with parents about...I do think it's on people's minds, and I do think we're going to continue to take public comment and make sure that we hear parents' ideas and concerns as we move forward."

There was also talk of sneeze guards or privacy screens on desks.

"There was some back-and-forth on that because not everyone is convinced that both masks, which is part of the scenario we did not get to [last week] and that guard are necessary," Walls said. "Some folks feel like that's, perhaps, an overreaction to have both."

The group also discussed teachers rotating between classrooms more than students switching classrooms to minimize cleaning time in between classes. But in high school, where there's specialized classes, including labs and vocational and technical education, that proves more challenging, according to concerns brought up by the group's student representative from Sussex Tech High School.

"How do we do that well? And I don't think we have an answer to that yet," said Walls. "What we're trying to do is think creatively about how we get kids back to school while maintaining safety and spacing and also making sure that we're addressing some of these physical and mental health components." 

"It's important to hear from students, how they feel about returning to school because we're talking a lot about them, but we need to make sure we're including them in that conversation," said Walls.

Walls said students and parents must be educated about the changes in advance too and that preventative work will be key.

"Things like teaching kids to wear masks, and preparing them ahead of time, and practicing around the try to make sure the impact isn't as difficult," she suggested. 

She also stressed weighing risk versus reward and factoring in the resiliency of kids.

"If the risk is kids might be a little uncomfortable and that some kiddos, perhaps, can't wear a mask--and we'll have to figure out what to do in those cases--but the reward is kids get to be back in school and see their friends and engage in learning in person, that reward, I think, for a lot of families and a lot of kiddos would out weigh the risks," she said. "And then being empathetic, and saying, 'look we know this is not perfect. We know it's hard to wear a mask or to stay 6 ft. away, we really want to get you back in school, so this is what we need to do, so let's work really hard together.'"

Walls thinks with the right supports in place, including extra counselors, kids will adapt.

"I've heard a lot of comments of like 'Oh my gosh, our kids are going to be miserable.' And I'm not sure that's true, and I think we really need to give our kids the benefit of the doubt and help to prepare them for that."

Other pieces of this complicated puzzle include equity. Another subset of the reopening schools working group is solely dedicated to this topic.

"How do we make sure that kiddos who are medically fragile, or have special needs, or [individualized education plans], are getting those things that they need, which is why part of our job is -- can we do this? And can we do it well enough to get kids back to school with the alternative being virtual learning or perhaps staggered virtual learning in a way that makes this effective."

Plus there's an acknowledgement that the virtual learning experience isn't the same for the student who must work in a vehicle in a parking lot, using a free WiFi hot spots versus those who can learn at home.

"Not every kids at home is having the same experience. So while parents are worried about kids in different ways, I think this is where the equity piece comes in. So we know that there are kids that don't have the internet or don't have enough devices to do their school work--even with help from districts and the city of Wilmington, and other towns and cities. And we know that there are kiddos who it's hard to get them lunch every day. So I think the other thing we really need to think about is this equity piece--for some parents this might be annoying, but for some families this might be sort of life-changing."

Tuesday, the group will also talk about testing and what to do when a student tests positive for COVID-19 as well as dining and extracurricular activities.

"We are figuring out how to get checks for symptoms, checks for temperatures--that has been actually a really big do we do that effectively especially given that we know that not all families own thermometer or not all families are able to do that, or some kids go to child care before school, so how do we figure those things out."

The Health and Wellness group has previously discussed conditions under Scenario 1, which means spread of the virus is minimal. School under those conditions looks a lot like the experience parents, teachers, and students are used to, with some added precautions.