As school districts across the United States and Canada develop guidelines for school opening this fall, there will be varying strategies required. Most school districts are considering one of three potential strategies:
- Going back to status quo, with everyone back to school along with updated protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- Using a hybrid with a partial opening combined with some online work.
- Starting the year with online learning.
With COVID-19, student and staff safety are on the minds of school district leaders, parents, staff, and students. Prevention of an outbreak will be at the forefront of all educators’ minds. Here are some strategies that will be employed in Alberta, Canada, that might be useful for comparison to the plans for your district.
Self and Parent Screening
When staff, students, visitors, and volunteers visit a school for work or education, schools/districts we will be using a provincial-approved checklist for a current health assessment. Our school district will have families assess their children before allowing them to go to school. School registration packages that go home before the school year will have a screening document printed on colorful paper, which will also be emailed to parents.
Middle schools will need to record any pre-existing symptoms just in case there needs to be any tracing by the health district. If a child develops symptoms that could be caused by COVID-19 (rather than by a known pre-existing condition such as allergies), the child must be tested for COVID-19 to confirm that it is not the cause of their symptoms before entering or returning to school.
If any staff or students report COVID-19 symptoms they will stay home and be directed to seek health care advice as appropriate as per health district established supports. Our district schools will be posting external signs at entry points to not enter the building if you have any COVID-19 symptoms.
The risk of transmission of COVID-19 is reduced by limiting exposure to others. A COVID-19 cohort, a small group whose members–always the same people—do not always keep two meters apart (Guidance for Cohorts, Government of Alberta, 2020, p. 1), will be a strategy used in our schools. Contact tracing is more feasible when groups are maintained. Middle schools, in which students switch classes with different students and teachers, may need to consider keeping students together in cohorts going from class to class and staying with the same teacher as much as possible. If possible, students should take the same classes together. The size of the cohort will depend on the physical space of the classroom or learning setting. Schools and districts need to prepare for families that have already been cohorting, to be in the same class or to sit beside each other inside the six foot distance typically recommended.
Whether all the students go back at once or partially, physical distancing will be a main strategy that our district will use this fall if we head back to the school building. This includes parent drop off and pick up areas, separate entrances and exits, washrooms, and accommodations in busy transition areas in the hallways of schools. Schools and teachers will need to lay out classes to maximize spacing, such as moving desks right up against the side, front, and back walls of the classroom.
Our school currently larger classroom tables, which promote collaborative learning, and these will not be desirable as students now must face the same direction. Desks or chairs with turn up platforms for writing will be best in this new COVID-19 world. We plan to use some cardboard trifolds as protective barriers in classrooms or hallways where physical distancing will be challenging.
Options or Electives
A question during the new school year for districts to decide is whether options or electives will be offered. If yes, cohorts of students could be visited by elective teachers and we will most likely have each cohort class participate in the same option, together. For example, our art specialist would visit a grade 7 class of students to deliver the lesson rather than the students being broken up into various options out of their cohorts. Our students will be disappointed to lose the choice and would rather have a sampling of different options decided by each school. Students would participate in the school-decided option for a length of time and experience the option. If we offer room or equipment-specific options like woodworking, we would move the cohort when the hallways are empty to the woodworking classroom. Band teachers would have to modify their courses to meet the restrictions of COVID with percussion and string instruments rather than brass and woodwind which involve blowing air. Our band instructor will most likely have students take their brass and woodwind instruments home to play online.
If our students are back in school, we will participate in physical activity outdoors whenever possible. The gym would provide some physical distancing and physical education programs would have to further alter the delivery of programs to allow for physical distancing. For example, wrestling classes would be on hold and replaced with activities such as badminton.
Changing for physical education may also be on hold as our locker rooms are very small with sometimes three classes changing at the same time. If our physical education teachers move to changing for physical education, they will develop a staggered changing schedule or not have students change for physical education until it is possible to use locker rooms effectively.
Our Questions Moving Forward
Self-assessment strategies: Will our self-assessment screen include parents taking their child’s temperature everyday before going to school?
Substitute teaching staff: It would be recommended for school districts to hire additional substitutes and possibly assign the same substitutes to the same schools to maintain proper cohorting strategies.
Masks or no masks: One of the more discussed topics during the pandemic has been the use and effectiveness of masks. More recent studies are showing that COVID-19 can be transmitted via the air in fine saliva spray. The New York Times shared the opinion of a group of scientists encouraging the WHO to give more consideration to the role of the airborne spread of COVID-19. If students and staff are indeed back to school, it would be highly recommended for all students and staff to wear masks. The rationale behind this decision stems from providing an extra layer of safety for students and staff members. Just like washing hands is a widely accepted practice to stop the spread of germs, masks will offer the same type of safety for students and staff if we are back in classes. Some physical distancing will prove to be impossible, so most authorities recommend the use of masks in these situations.
In conclusion, schools and districts will be working on obvious strategies such as increased touch point cleaning and having students clean the areas that they finish working in as well as equipment they might have come touched. More research is released daily and we have some strong examples of mistakes and useful strategies used by schools that are open in Australia and New Zealand and those that opened in June in Canada. Stay vigilant and educated for the well-being of our students and staff.
Bill Garner is assistant principal of F. E. Osborne School, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.