How to Reopen K-12 Schools in the Safest Way Possible: Things to consider during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published: June 30, 2020

“It’s not about making the right choice. It’s about making a choice and making it right.”

-J.R. Rim

Since the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in mid-March, most K-12 schools canceled in-person classes for the foreseeable future. Officials in 48 states, as well as Washington, D.C., ordered or recommended that schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year. In the United States, school closings impacted approximately 56.6 million students and their families. However, as all 50 states have begun reopening in some way, there’s increasing debate of when it will be safe for schools to resume in-person classes.

In Texas, some schools announced the reopening for in-person summer programs. In May, the CDC released a set of guidelines for schools reopening, which include spacing desks 6  feet apart, having students at their desks instead of the cafeteria, and closing playgrounds and other communal spaces where possible. Dr. Steve Kelder, Professor of Epidemiology with the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, created a comprehensive list on “5 Planning Rules for Opening Schools”. This checklist of things to consider before reopening schools includes how to make informed decisions, establish proper protocols, and maintain open communications.

In this blog we will recap Dr. Kelder’s “5 Planning Rules for Opening Schools” covered in the “ How to Reopen K-12 Schools in the Safest Way Possible: A Path Forward for Education on COVID-19” webinar.  We encourage you to access the resources listed at the end of the blog as well.

Until a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment is available, prevention and mitigation will be necessary. Dr. Kelder recommends the following steps:

  1. Rule of Law: Watch for executive orders at Federal, State, and County levels
  2. Rule of Science: Watch the 7 to 14 day moving average reductions in deaths per 1000/day AND (with sufficient testing) new cases
  3. Rule of Place: Don’t permit exposure
    1. Super spreading people
      1. Symptom screening, testing, contact tracing
      2. Physical distancing, quarantine, recovery confirmation
    2. Super spreading environments
      1. High density, high contact, high traffic
      2. Surface and touchpoint cleaning and disinfection (see CDC guidance)
      3. Passing objects (books, paper & pens, folders, toys, sports equipment, etc.)

Planned response for school exposure/outbreaks that address closures, furloughs, cleaning, and disinfection.

  1. Rule of People: Strengthen students and staff by training in personal protection actions
    1. Encourage recommended sleep
    2. Turn down the anxiety / stress with safe and fun physical activities (outdoors is safest)
    3. Strengthen immune system with fruits, vegetables, unprocessed foods
    4. Ensure up to date vaccinations (including flu shot)
    5. Social distance: with 6-foot bubbles, floor markings, desk arrangements
    6. Hand-washing & sanitizer stations in all rooms; Stock bathroom with soap and towels
    7. Up-to-date PPE for staff; masks for children who forget to bring their own
  2. Rule of Policy: Controls must be designed, implemented, monitored, and adapted
    1. Distance learning and non-punitive sick/stay at home policies
    2. Coordination between campus, health care, and public healthy systems in the community
    3. Daily communication between parents, faculty and staff, health care, and public health
*Local governments across Texas  implemented stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, to varying degrees in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings in the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. On Friday, June 26th, Governor Abott ordered Texas bars to close and restaurants to reduce to 50% occupancy as coronavirus spreads*

Additional Resources:

We encourage you to follow the John Hopkins University staff training to learn more about COVID-19 and what you can do to stay safe and prevent spread of the virus.

Bookmark these websites on your browser to stay up to date with considerations of gatherings etc.

TEA:  Summer Instruction, Activities and School Visits: Guidance for Reopening and Student Interaction Updated May 22, 2020

Considerations for Schools and Mass Gatherings

CDC: City, State & Territorial Health Department Websites

 CDC: Cases and Deaths by County

UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium

John Hopkins: All State Comparison of Testing Efforts

More recommendation reports in-detail

Several organizations have recently proposed strategies to reopen schools:

SCHOOLS DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CDC Infographic


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