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In a short time, the issue of bar and restaurant openings will fade into the fog of political warfare, but for parents in our area, there is a far more important issue on the horizon: Is it safe to send my child back to school?
We cannot allow this important decision to become just another opportunity for politicians to grandstand. This decision goes to the heart of every family in our community. More than anything else we need clear, thoughtful, and detailed plans to ensure the safety of our children and we are running out of time.
We must focus on the situation as it exists when it comes time to open our schools, not how we want it to be. As of June, there are some troubling signs. While most states are seeing cases remain flat, there are still 14 states in which cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are climbing, even as those same states are opening up. We may desire to act as though we have defeated this virus but it appears we still have a fight ahead of us to protect our families and children.
Realistically, in all probability our schools will open in August. There is no doubt that we all want that to happen. Our schools are designed to provide classroom instruction with a teacher, that is the way it is intended to work. Remote, online, education will always be a poor substitute, leaving students physically isolated and unable to enjoy the social aspects of school. Sports, band, theater, and lifelong friendships are the unique part of our school experience that we remember all our lives.
If the situation in August allows the return to school, the state has issued preliminary guidance for the opening of our schools in Pennsylvania. This guidance from the state is only to be considered as a starting point. The bulk of the responsibility falls on the local school district. Each school district will be required to draft a coronavirus Health and Safety Plan before students can return. This plan must be approved by the school district’s board of directors and then submitted to the state for review. The plan must also be posted on the school district’s public website before schools can reopen.
Schools may resume in-person instruction after July 1 and must follow state Department of Education and Health guidelines as well as Center for Disease Control guidelines. In addition, local school districts are required to have a pandemic coordinator or pandemic team responsible for their COVID-19 mitigation plan, including steps to protect those students most vulnerable, along with policies for exactly when quarantined students, teachers, and administrators can return to school. The school district plan must also include guidelines for all staff regarding the wearing of masks. Establishing a clear policy for the wearing of face masks by teachers and students will be one of the more challenging aspects of the school district’s COVID-19 plan.
In addition to our concern for students, teachers, and administrators there are other front line workers that are critical to the defense of our schools. I am referring to custodians, nurses, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. All of these workers deal with sick children, they deal with body spills when children get sick and then they clean and disinfect. We need to give them the equipment and training they need including the best masks, gloves, and protective clothing available so they can stay healthy and keep our schools healthy.
More than any time in the past, we need to make sure our schools are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and that includes before students come each morning, after the students leave, and throughout the day. Protecting our schools will require more than hand sanitizer, hand washing, and social distance.
Custodians will need electrostatic sprayers to ensure that every high touch surface is disinfected with a solution registered by the EPA to be used against the COVID-19 virus. This solution takes about 10 minutes to activate and there is no way to speed it up. The sprayers and solution will be used in hallways, bathrooms, gyms, locker rooms, and classrooms, even furniture and floors must be disinfected.
The additional financial cost of staffing, training, man hours, and disinfecting supplies will be a burden on local school districts. Districts that have already lost considerable revenue as the result of the pandemic. Recently, the state legislature enacted bills to release federal coronavirus relief money to all levels of education to fill the shortage of funds for basic educational needs. In addition, a new $150 million state grant program is specifically intended to defray the cost of training and equipping school custodians to ensure safe schools. But it is important to remember that there are approximately 3,400 schools in Pennsylvania comprising 500 school districts. If every school applies for and is awarded a grant under this state program, simple math dictates that each school will receive about $40,000. That is not enough, not nearly enough.
There are other important measures that our state legislature could enact to protect our schools and children, beginning with the funding and organization of COVID-19 Rapid Response Teams. It is highly probable that when schools return the virus will strike individual geographic regions of the state, or counties, or even singular schools. It is vital that the State Legislature take immediate action to ensure that this Rapid Response Team is on call when school children return to their classrooms. This Rapid Response Team of medical professionals would then be on site to test, track, and limit the spread of the virus. It will also require health care professionals to visit the home of a student that tests positive in order to determine if parents or siblings are also infected. Based upon their assessment of the level of the spread of the virus they would then take appropriate action to isolate those at risk. The decision to close a school, if necessary, is in the hands of the local School Superintendent.
Unfortunately, at this point there are more questions than answers and that is not what parents want to hear. Parents need to know that our Governor, State Legislators, local officials, and school administrators have and share all the information available and come up with a cooperative and effective plan to ensure the safety of our children returning to school. Parents are pleading for the political posturing to end and the focus of everyone is on our school children and whatever it takes to ensure their safety. It is time to stop the debate and act.
A parents guide to questions that must be answered before sending your child to school
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education School Reopening Health and Safety Plan Template
- How will the school ensure the building is cleaned and sanitized?
- How will the school procure adequate disinfectant supplies that meet CDC requirements regarding the COVID-19 virus?
- How often will the school implement cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and ventilation procedures?
- What procedures are in place to clean and disinfect during the school day?
- Which staff members will be trained in sanitizing, disinfecting, and ventilation protocols? When and how will training be provided?
- How will classrooms/learning spaces be organized to reduce the spread of virus?
- How will schools adjust student transportation to meet social distancing requirements?
- What visitor and volunteer policies will be implemented to mitigate spread?
- Will social distancing and other safety measures differ based upon age or grade level?
- Which staff members will be trained on social distancing and other safety protocols? When and how will training be provided?
- Will the use of cafeterias and group settings be restricted? If so, how?
- How will the sharing of materials by students be limited?
- How will schools monitor students and staff to ensure they are healthy and not exhibiting signs of illness?
- Where, to whom, when, and how frequently will COVID-19 monitoring take place?
- What is the policy for quarantine or isolation if staff or students becomes ill or is exposed to a confirmed case?
- Which staff members will be responsible for making decisions regarding isolation and quarantine requirements for staff and students? What training have they had to prepare them?
- What conditions will a staff or students, confirmed to have COVID-19, need to meet for the safe return to school? How will the school accommodate staff who are unable for health reasons or uncomfortable to return?
- When and how will families be notified of confirmed staff or student illness or exposure?
- What staff members will be trained in medical and health protocols to monitor student and staff health? When and how will the training be provided?
- What is the policy for face coverings for staff and students?
- What special policies will be implemented to protect students and staff at higher risk for severe illness?
- How will the school ensure there is enough substitute teachers in the event of staff illness?
Robert Griffiths is a former educator and a current educational consultant and Cornwall-Lebanon School District board member. He lives in South Lebanon.
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This column was updated after publication to include the “parents guide” section.