As the COVID-19 pandemic persists into the next school year, most districts are facing the question of whether or not they should re-open schools, and if so, how to accomplish a re-opening that is safe for students, their families, and teachers. An examination of this issue raises many questions, all of which are difficult to answer. I certainly do not have a plan that schools can quickly adopt and get on with educating students as before, but I do have some thoughts that should be considered as re-openings are considered.
This issue is made complex by competing interests, none of which can probably be completely satisfied. There is the need for children to be well educated, and not fall irreparably behind in their studies. There is the need for protecting children and teachers in classrooms from spreading the virus to each other, and then spreading it outside of the classroom to family, especially older family such as grandparents. There is also the need for parents and guardians who have had to stay home with children, to return to work. These interests can be categorized into those of health, educational, and economic. Solutions to at least restore all three to at least a serviceable condition is needed. Satisfying one while leaving another unaddressed will not do.
In this article, I will address the question, is there a way to hold classes on site without compromising stakeholders’ health safety? I would answer yes, if certain conditions are met. First, classes must be maxed out at lower enrollments to allow social distancing to be maintained. We can follow the example of restaurants here, that have reduced their capacities, and spaced tables so that people are distance enough to avoid infecting people at another table. With each student having their own desk and/or chair, students must be kept at a safe distance from each other. This is unquestionably more difficult than in a restaurant, because whereas diners are unlikely to move around to other tables, students are accustomed to being to some degree mobile within the classroom. This can no longer be the case. If students are to return to classrooms, they must be spaced apart as they enter and exit as a class, and must stay in their seats and away from all others at all times. Given the challenge of keeping children distanced at all times, additional staff may need to be hired to assist teachers with maintaining distancing. Classrooms that typically do not have paraprofessionals assigned to them may well need to gain one if health safety if to be maintained.
Maintaining social distancing in classrooms will in many cases, require a restructuring of instructional practice, where desk clusters, small groups, and collaboration were the norm. None of this is permissible under the current circumstances. For music instruction, large ensembles will need to be divided into smaller classes where social distancing is possible. Singing in particular, has been identified as a high risk activity because of the increased water droplets which potentially carry the virus that are emitted; therefore, music educators must proceed with extreme caution if singing is to be continued. Singers should be distanced further apart than the recommended six feet, which prohibits more than the smallest of ensembles in the largest of spaces, at best. Instrumental performance would seem to be safer (though I am not aware of any recommendation or research that makes that point), because water droplets are not expelled in the same way while playing a wind instrument, though the use of spit valves on brass instruments, and the draining of French horns will need to avoided.
One solution to reduced class sizes that has been proposed is to hold half day sessions in which half of the students would receive distance learning instruction, the other half would attend class on site, then at the midday point, the on site students would go home to distance learn the rest of the day, and the morning distance learning group would to to the school building for the afternoon session. This is reasonable for those who have internet access, but for those who don’t, and there are significant number in this category, distance learning is of no value. These students, if they are to resume their education, must have full day instruction. To this end, some of the faculty would teach the half day sessions, while other faculty would teach full day school to those who do not have internet access at home.
The distance learning as it has been delivered so far has been minimally successful. This is no doubt due in large part to the suddenness with which schools were thrust in to having to provide it, with no time to plan or even learn how to manage such instruction. Hopefully, over the summer, districts have done good work on learning, training, planning and implementing a more effective distance learning program. Many Universities have been offer on-line degree programs for some time now, and have extensive experience in this field. Local school districts would do well to seek out university distance learning professionals for training and support if distance learning is going to continue to be integral to delivering education to children.
Other areas of concern would be recess and physical education. In both cases, the close physical proximity that characterizes typical activities in these settings would have to be avoided. It is hard to imagine physical education class that involves more than running and calisthenics in which social distancing could be maintained, but it nonetheless must be. Recess might be even more challenging. Children would need to be kept separate on the playground, and the use of playground equipment would need to be prohibited, because many hands touching the same surface is not safe, just as many hands touching the same ball, racket, bat, etc. in physical education class is also not safe. The same is true of classroom manipulative and supplies. None should be handled by more than one person without being sanitized between users.
Another area of concern is the physical plant of the school building itself. It has been my experience that HVAC and ventilation systems in school buildings is notoriously poor and unreliable. Buildings are often outfitted with systems by the lowest bidder at the lowest possible cost, poorly maintained, and in ill repair much of the time. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to persist under the present conditions. Efficient ventilation is essential to making classrooms and overall school buildings safe to occupy during the pandemic. Poor ventilation gives the virus more time to remain in the building before being sent out, increasing the chances of someone becoming infected. All school buildings should have their ventilation and HVAC systems inspected and put in top working order before students and teachers are allowed to return.
There is a lot to think through before we can be comfortable with children returning to school. Making it safe for them to do so will require additional expense, as with providing maintenance on ventilation systems and adding para professionals; however, the cost of not spending what it takes to make our schools safe is much higher.