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Toi Degree: Keeping students, staff safe as the new school year begins

As students prepare to go back to school, they will find schools operating differently due to COVID-19. Some students may be continuing with online learning while others may be preparing for in-person learning in schools, which may require them to wear face cloth coverings, continue physical distancing and having their temperatures checked.

The big question parents have right now is how students can go back to school safely during COVID-19. The latest American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advice says children learn best when they are in school. However, returning to school in-person needs careful steps in place to keep students and staff safe.

What schools can do

To stay safe, there are a number of steps schools should take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They include:

Physical distancing. The goal should be to stay at least 6 feet apart to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. However, spacing desks at least 3 feet apart and avoiding close contact may have similar benefits for students — especially if students wear cloth face coverings and do not have symptoms of illness.

Teachers and staff are likely more at risk of getting COVID-19 from other adults than from children at school. Teachers should stay the full 6 feet apart from each other and students when possible. Teachers and staff should also wear cloth face coverings and limit in-person meetings with other adults.

When possible, outdoor spaces can be used for instruction and meals. Students should also have extra space to spread out during activities like singing and exercising.

Cloth face coverings and hand hygiene. Frequent handwashing with soap and water is important for everyone. Washing with soap and water is always the best course of action and hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available. Additionally, all adults should wear cloth face coverings. Preschool and elementary students can benefit from wearing masks if they do not touch their mouths or noses a lot. Secondary school students should wear cloth face masks, especially when they can’t stay a safe distance apart.

Classroom changes. To help limit student interaction outside the classroom, schools can:

• Have teachers move between classrooms rather than having students fill the hallways during passing periods.

• Allow students to eat lunches at their desks or in small groups outdoors instead of in crowded lunchrooms.

• Leave classroom doors open to help reduce high touch surfaces such as doorknobs.

Temperature checks and testing. COVID-19 testing of all students is not possible for most schools. Taking students’ temperatures at school also may not always be feasible. Schools should establish ways to identify students with fever or other symptoms of illness. They can also frequently remind students, teachers, and staff to stay home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher or have any signs of illness.

Cleaning and disinfecting. Schools should follow Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines on proper disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas.

Buses, hallways, and playgrounds. Since these are often crowded spaces, schools can:

• Give bus riders assigned seats and require them to wear a cloth face covering while on the bus. Encourage students who have other ways to get to school to use those options.

• At school, mark hallways and stairs with one-way arrows on the floor to cut down on crowding in the halls.

• Outdoor activities are encouraged, so students should be allowed to use the playground in small groups.

Other considerations. In addition to having plans in place to keep students safe, there are other factors that school communities need to address (pressure to catch up, students with disabilities/high-risk, behavioral health/emotional support and nutrition).

Remember, returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic may not feel like normal — at least for a while. But having safety plans — and making sure schools have the resources needed to follow them – can help protect students, teachers, staff, and families.

More information

• Pediatricians, educators and superintendents are urging a safe return to school this fall: https://services.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/aap/2020/pediatricians-educators-and-superintendents-urge-a-safe-return-to-school-this-fall/

• Is it safe to send my child to child care during COVID-19? https://www.healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/ask-the-pediatrician/Pages/Is-it-safe-to-send-my-child-to-child-care-during-COVID-19.aspx

• Is it OK to see my pediatrician during COVID-19? https://www.healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/ask-the-pediatrician/Pages/Is-it-OK-to-call-the-pediatrician-during-COVID-19-even-if-Im-not-sure-my-child-is-sick.aspx

• Back to school, back to the doctor: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/school/Pages/Back-to-School-Back-to-the-Doctor.aspx

• What to do if your child is falling behind in school: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/school/Pages/Poor-School-Performance-How-Parents-Can-Help.aspx

Information gathered from Healthychildren.org https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/COVID-19/Pages/Return-to-School-During-COVID-19.aspx

For the most current information on our programs, like and follow us on Facebook at Rowan County Cooperative Extension and you can also visit our website at https://rowan.ces.ncsu.edu/.

Toi N. Degree, Family & Consumer Education Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Call her at 704-216-8970 or email toi_degree@ncsu.edu.

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