A year ago, who would have thought that the top item on a parent’s “back to school” list would be ensuring their child’s school was prepared for them to return to campus safely in the midst of a pandemic? Student safety has always been a priority for parents and educators, but perhaps never more so than it is right now.
It is widely understood by educators and medical experts that children learn best when they are in a classroom setting. Yet according to healthychildren.org, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) parent website, “Returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic may not feel like normal – at least for a while. But whatever form school takes, it will require everyone’s support to make sure that it is healthy, safe and equitable for students.”
Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has provided extensive guidance for schools seeking to create the safest possible environment for students who are returning to the classroom. The preponderance of their recommendations fall into four categories: employing protocols to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, promoting a healthy environment, adopting healthy operational procedures, and having a plan in the event someone gets sick with the virus.
Let’s take a look at some of the specific measures the CDC and other experts recommend in each of these four areas to reduce risk and elevate student safety.
Employing Protocols to Help Reduce the Spread of COVID-19
Welcome to the “new normal.” With students back on campus, schools must have comprehensive and proven methods in place to help mitigate the perpetuation of the virus. Here is a list of things you should be looking for at your child’s school:
- Health screening and temperature checks – First things first: before even stepping onto campus, students and staff should answer a series of basic COVID-related questions (e.g., Have you had a cough, shortness of breath, etc.? Have you been in contact within the last 14 days with someone with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19?). They should also have their temperature checked by a designated school staff member.
- Social distancing – Keeping space between one another doesn’t necessarily come naturally to children. The good news is they’ve been engaged in this practice since last spring, so it’s not a foreign concept. Nevertheless, it’s up to teachers and staff to make sure students are practicing social distancing.
- Masks – Wearing a mask isn’t enough, in and of itself. Kids’ face masks must be used properly — both when indoors and in outdoor situations where social distancing is difficult to enforce. Find CDC guidance on kids’ face masks here.
- Hand hygiene – Soap … water … scrub …. and keep going for 20 seconds — about the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Teachers are a creative bunch, so don’t be surprised if your child comes home singing a new hand-washing song that they learned in class! As long as it’s engaging them for a full 20 seconds, embrace it; this will help reinforce the practice of handwashing. For situations where soap and water are not available, confirm there is plenty of hand sanitizer available — just make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Stay home if appropriate – Schools should nurture a culture where students and staff are encouraged to stay home if they are sick or have had recent close contact with a person with COVID-19. In a non-pandemic environment, parents are sometimes inclined to send their child to school when they aren’t feeling well; likewise, teachers are guilty of trying to push through when they are under the weather. In a COVID-19 environment, everyone needs to resist this temptation for the protection of others. Consider it a bonus if your school provides an opportunity for on-campus students to switch to remote learning during the duration of their illness.
Promoting a Healthy Environment
Schools should always aspire to create physically healthy environments for their students and staff. But in the age of COVID-19, this requires going above and beyond, and implementing significantly enhanced measures:
- Ventilation – According to the Environmental Protection Agency, improving ventilation can reduce risks from particles “resuspended during cleaning, including those potentially carrying SARS-CoV-2 (or other contaminants).” Schools would serve their students well by installing clean filters and consulting with HVAC professionals.
- School sanitization – High-touch areas in all buildings (such as door handles) and outside areas (such as playground equipment) should be cleaned and sanitized periodically throughout the day. Clean classrooms are a must, as this is where students spend the majority of their day. Engineering and custodial crews should be trained in the most up-to-date COVID-19 prevention protocols. Don’t be shy about asking your school if it is using EPA-approved products for school sanitization.
- Supplemental products which help mitigate the spread – Consider yourself fortunate if your child’s school has prioritized putting additional safety measures in place. Portable hand wash stations, touchless trash receptacles, and shoe cleaning mats all contribute to protecting the environment.
- Modified classroom layouts – According to AAP, “The goal for students and adults is to stay at least 6 feet apart to help prevent the spread of the virus. However, research has found that spacing desks at least 3 feet apart and avoiding close contact may have similar benefits — especially if students wear cloth face coverings and do not have symptoms of illness.” Regardless of the distance, students should be facing the same direction (rather than toward one another).
- Shared objects – If there was ever a time to be “selfish” with our belongings, it’s now. Schools need to discourage students from sharing any items which are difficult to clean or disinfect. To whatever extent possible, students should be given their own supplies, and they should be clearly labeled and kept in separate containers or areas.
- Signage – Posters and signs can help keep safety protocols in the forefront of students’ minds. Images that demonstrate healthy behaviors (such as social distancing and covering a sneeze) should be paired with words which are appropriate for a range of student reading levels.
- Physical barriers — Plexiglass barriers provide a layer of protection for people in areas where social distancing is not feasible, such as the school’s front office reception area.
Adopting Healthy Operational Procedures
Examining a school’s operational procedures and seeking ways to make them safer are another important part of an effective student safety plan:
- Education and training – Teachers are the “boots on the ground” when it comes to helping ensure that students engage in proper safety protocols. The importance of thorough and on-going COVID-19 staff training cannot be overstated if a school is to provide a safe and healthy environment.
- Utilize small groups – By placing students in small groups (cohorts) which stay together throughout the day, but keep some appropriate distance from other groups, the number of people students interact with is greatly reduced.
- Adjust scheduling – By staggering student drop-off and pick-up times, schools are able to minimize contact with students who are not part of their small group or cohort.
- Food service – Foods provided by the school should be individually plated or pre-packaged. Systems should be in place for students to eat either outside or in their classrooms (socially distanced), as opposed to in a common area such as a cafeteria. Hand washing should occur both before and after eating.
- Closed campus – Limit non-essential visitors, including parents, on campus. While this may be challenging, it greatly reduces the number of people a child will come into contact with.
- Field trips – This is the time to go virtual! Many of the most popular field trip destinations have had to develop alternative ways for people to “visit” them. Schools should also examine ways to do events that they would typically have on campus (e.g., student assemblies and parent meetings) remotely.
Proceeding Safely After A Suspected Case of COVID-19?
Even the most rigorous plan isn’t bulletproof. While the goal is to make the school environment as safe and healthy as possible, there is always a possibility that someone will contract COVID-19.
The CDC has created a flowchart which demonstrates the process they recommend schools follow if someone is taken ill.
Evaluating Your Own Situation
Your child’s overall wellbeing is a parent’s top priority. You want nothing more than for him or her to thrive in a safe environment. And you deserve to know what your school is doing to help protect his or her health and wellbeing.
“My daughter couldn’t wait to get back on campus,” said Christy Audet, a parent at Fairmont Schools in Orange County, California. “We wanted that for her too, but we needed to make sure our school was doing everything in its power to ensure her safety. So we did our research. We attended several parent Zoom meetings with members of their COVID-19 Task Force. We had an open line of communication with our Campus Director who made herself available to answer our questions. And then we took all of that information and lined it up against what the medical experts were saying about what constitutes a strong student safety plan. Once we saw the lengths our school was going to, we felt confident that it was time for her to return to the classroom.”
This is a good time to take stock of things. Are you comfortable with how your school has prepared for students’ return to the classroom? Will your child feel safe when he or she steps foot on campus? If not, it may be time for a change. If you are looking for a school which has a demonstrated history of protecting student safety, it’s not too late to enroll at Fairmont Schools for the 2020-2021 school year. Contact admissions to schedule your tour today.
More About Fairmont Schools
Founded in 1953, Fairmont Schools is a family-owned and operated learning institution with five Orange County campuses — Fairmont Anaheim Hills, Fairmont North Tustin, Fairmont Historic Anaheim (Preschool to 8th grade), Fairmont San Juan Capistrano (Pre-K to 12th grade), and Fairmont Preparatory Academy (9th to 12th grade). Fairmont has been voted Orange County’s Best Private School for seven consecutive years, and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and Cognia, and is a member of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). It’s not too late to enroll for the 2021-2022 school year.