The new school year brings with it the danger of COVID-19 as large groups of students and teachers begin spending time in enclosed classrooms. Teachers are especially susceptible to virus exposure as the nature of their job asks them to instruct, assist, and interact with children, who may not understand the necessity of following all safety procedures. Since many state education departments aren't providing strict mandates for reopening procedures, some districts are fully remote, while others are implementing hybrid models that mix virtual and in-person teaching.
For teachers who are tasked with in-person learning this fall, here's an evidence-based guide to protecting your health, preventing further spread, and implementing protocols in your classroom.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) advises that everyone above the age of 2 wears a mask in public settings, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Depending on classroom size and the student-to-teacher ratio, it may be nearly impossible to maintain physical distancing at school. As a result, all teachers, school staff, and students will need to wear masks and eye protection, use hand sanitizers and surface cleaners, and practice physical distancing wherever possible. Schools may want to consider erecting clear, physical barriers, like those seen often in grocery stores and banks, in between desks and tables. Physical barriers provide some protection from droplets in the air, but more importantly, they remind students of the necessity of maintaining personal space.
Another factor impeding school health and safety is that students may not know how to properly use these physical protections. At the start of the school year, teachers should assume that students know nothing about proper uses of masks and hygiene practices and begin the year with a small lesson on hygiene and COVID-19 safety measures. Masks and hand sanitizer stations are appearing in most public places, so these physical protections shouldn’t be foreign ideas to students this fall, but students may not know how to adjust their masks for proper fit, avoid touching their faces and masks, or consistently sanitize their hands.
The tasks of constantly policing students and sanitizing every classroom surface should not fall solely on the teacher, but instead become a shared responsibility for the whole class. Teachers may want to consider a points system that rewards students for proper use of physical protections and following correct sanitizing procedures in their designated areas.
Preventing New Infections
In addition to using physical protections in school buildings, teachers should be proactive about preventing opportunities for further spread of the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers useful tips and guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace that could be customized to classroom and school settings. Local communities and parents of school children may not be aware of every health precaution, so educating families as well as students will help to develop a more well-rounded approach to preventing the spread of the virus. Hygiene literature and precautions should be sent home in preferred languages at the start of the school year so that parents can help to assist their children to follow school guidelines.
Parents and guardians of K-12 children should not only be aware of the necessity of the physical protections, but also be educated on the necessity of monitoring children’s health and keeping them home in the event of suspected illness. Teachers should encourage parents to administer temperature checks each morning before their children come to school.
We interviewed WHO Public Health Consultant Dr. Mark Johnson, who said that temperature checks are “very good practice because they offer objective data rather than a subjective measurement like ‘how do you feel’ when assessing a child’s health.” He went on to say that temperature checks alone are not comprehensive, and that parents should monitor their children for any unusual symptoms and keep them home if they suspect any danger of their child spreading the virus.
Despite the best efforts of teachers and school staff to maintain physical distance, there will be unavoidable periods in which students are likely to congregate in large groups such as arrival/dismissal times, meal gatherings, and passing periods for middle and high school students. These large gatherings pose the greatest risk of exposure to teachers, who are often expected to supervise student behavior and even physically intervene when students misbehave. A series of protocols will need to be put in place for teachers and students to stay safe during these gatherings.
To minimize the amount of students in these unavoidable gatherings, schools should stagger release and arrival times and any transitional periods that involve students leaving a classroom. Additionally, teachers may want to consider taping the ground in hallways and common areas to mark physical parameters. Teachers may find it helpful to implement one-way lanes in halls and doorways. Designating perimeters for student movement outside of the classroom will give excited children a visual reminder of where they should be.
Additionally, changing up the protocol for regular lessons and class meeting spaces could make a major difference in preventing the spread of the virus. Dr. Johnson suggested utilizing the largest spaces found in school buildings like gyms, auditoriums, libraries, and outdoor spaces for regular instruction, rather than restricted classroom settings. He explained that “larger spaces dilute the virus particles in the air, which reduces the risk of infection.” Johnson went on to say that when larger spaces aren’t available, teachers should consider opening doors and windows to allow for better air circulation.
The bottom line
Teachers should prioritize educating their students about COVID-19 and the importance of using physical protections. The entire school community should work together to ensure that families are on board with plans to prevent the further spread of the virus. New school protocols should be implemented to organize and minimize large congregations of students.