Teachers in masks, lunches in classrooms, CDC guidelines envision stark new year for schools

CDC decision tree for schools

By Trisha Powell Crain

Masks for teachers and students, intense and frequent cleaning of schools and shared supplies, and limiting contact among students should all become a part of the regular school day according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted online this week.

The stark guidelines come as school officials confront the issues of reopening for the fall. How to maintain social distancing? How to keep facilities clean? How to transport children to and from school on buses?

“Some amount of community mitigation is necessary across all steps until a vaccine or therapeutic drug becomes widely available,” CDC guidance states.

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey said it would be hard for schools here to follow all of them.

“Some of the things are just not reasonable for practical application,” Mackey said.

“We are taking very careful thought of, including large amounts of what the CDC released, in our strategies and guidance,” he added. “But we are not taking everything verbatim.”

The Alabama State Department of Education on Thursday released guidelines for school officials to use for summer activities.

Mackey began last week meeting with members of a coronavirus task force to create a more detailed roadmap for schools looking to reopen in August. He expects the roadmap to be released in mid-June.

The CDC lays out three steps for officials to consider based on how prevalent the virus is in the community.

The first two steps apply when there is active transmission of COVID-19.

First, the CDC recommends screening all students and employees before they enter school for the day. That’s according to a companion school decision tree. If that isn’t possible, CDC says, the school should not reopen.

Second, keep children apart as much as possible. Large group gatherings of students should be avoided at all steps, which could mean closing school cafeterias and playgrounds when the disease is present in the school’s community and keeping students with the same teacher for the entire school day.

During those phases, desks should all be faced in the same direction, have students sit on only one side of tables, and all children should be six feet apart. Schools should serve meals to students in their classroom when possible, close playgrounds and cancel field trips and extracurricular activities, CDC states.

Third, regardless of the level of disease transmission, the CDC recommends a base level of cleanliness and social distancing. That includes requiring face coverings for all staff and keeping supplies of hand sanitizer well stocked. That’s essential at all phases of reopening, according to the CDC.

School employees must be trained in health and safety protocols, and signs promoting safe practices should be placed where students and teachers can see them.

Proper cleaning of school facilities, buses, and “frequently touched surfaces” and shared supplies must be done, and ventilation is important, too.

After prolonged school closures, the CDC cautions, water fountains must be properly cleaned to minimize the risk of Legionnaires’ disease and other water-based diseases.

Mackey mentioned the CDC guidelines in a town hall meeting with music educators earlier this week, pointing out the struggle schools are facing.

When asked about how bands would be able to transport students on buses, Mackey was frank. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about transportation,” Mackey said, describing the social distancing requirements and how rather than transporting 45 students, buses could only hold 15 students. “You can’t afford all the extra buses it would take.”

Even faced with those challenges, Mackey held firm on the goal to reopen schools.

“One way of the other, we are coming back to school,” he said. “Our intention is, every bit, to start school in August.”

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