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Keeping Students and Staff Healthy and Safe When Schools Reopen
Wendy Otin, 6, is shown by her teachers in Barcelona, Spain how to clean her hands with sanitizer to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

School and district leaders must be equipped to protect the health and safety of students and staff before they reopen school buildings. In addition to maintaining social-distancing measures, schools will have to implement safety measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Education Week spoke to more than a dozen experts, including public health officials, about what practices must be adopted and the weighty considerations around costs, staffing, and community support for safety measures.

Should students wear masks?

There is massive debate on whether students should wear face coverings in school. Some schools that have reopened in other countries have foregone masks, while others require students, even the youngest learners, to wear them at all times.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Read Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day

Those in favor point to evidence that shows that properly wearing masks can help slow the spread of the virus, which is carried by droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. However, some experts are concerned that students-especially younger ones-will constantly touch their faces while fiddling with their masks, making the masks much less effective.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools encourage students, particularly older students, to wear cloth face coverings if feasible and when physical distancing is difficult. (Masks are not recommended for children under 2.)

If districts require students to wear masks, they will likely have to purchase and provide them to avoid creating an equity issue for those who can't afford them. A disposable mask costs about 75 cents. Purchasing those in bulk would be a large expense at a time when budgets are tight. (Some students would likely opt to bring their own mask from home-the CDC has said that homemade face coverings are effective at slowing the spread of the virus.)

District leaders must weigh their local context when making any requirements, experts say: Is there a high transmission of cases in the area? Are community members generally supportive of wearing masks in public?

"You can have the best public health plan in the world, but if your public doesn't buy into it, it's not an effective plan," said Mario Ramirez, the managing director of the nonprofit Opportunity Labs, who was an acting director for the Office of Pandemic and Emerging Threats during the Obama administration.

Should staff wear masks?

There's more of a consensus among public health officials when it comes to having teachers and other school staff wear masks. The CDC recommends that all staff wear face coverings. Ramirez said school nurses should have N95 respirator masks.

Districts will have to decide whether to purchase these masks, and if they do, how they will both find and pay for such a large supply.

Many teachers, however, are concerned about how wearing a face covering will affect their instruction. Elementary teachers say teaching phonics and other language sounds will be difficult when students can't see their lips moving, and teachers of English-language learners worry that students might have a hard time understanding them through a mask. The California Department of Public Health has said teachers can use face shields, if available, which would allow students to see their teachers' faces.

Should schools check students' temperatures before letting them enter the building?

Temperature checks upon entry to a school building have been a popular proposal for reopening. However, public health experts say that this safety measure is not a fail-safe way of monitoring symptoms and can provide a "false sense of security."

While a fever is one symptom of COVID-19, an infected person can shed the virus for a few days before exhibiting any symptoms. And even though children are less likely to exhibit severe symptoms of COVID-19, research has found that children who are asymptomatic can be infectious. (Some research, however, has found that children are less likely to spread the virus.) Also, during regular flu season, district leaders say some parents give their child medicine that masks their fever before sending them to school, so a thermometer reading might not be an accurate indication of symptoms.

It's more important to educate parents on all symptoms of COVID-19, and ask them to monitor their children at home, experts said.

Even so, Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said temperature screenings may help parents feel more comfortable about sending their children to school.

"Some parents will ask for it," he said, adding that "it's better to have a system that everyone will feel comfortable with."

Should schools conduct COVID-19 testing?

Some people have raised the possibility of students and staff being tested for COVID-19 before they return to school. However, experts say they're concerned about the feasibility of doing so.

Districts don't have the staff, the expertise, or the resources to administer tests effectively without help from health departments, some say. And the effectiveness of testing hinges on the availability of tests and the local health department's capacity: If it takes a week to get the results, the test will have been useless.

Also, experts note that COVID-19 tests involve a nasal swab that is particularly unpleasant for young children. Parents may not give permission for their child to be tested.

Are there enough places for students and staff to wash their hands?

In many school buildings, there's a shortage of sinks for handwashing-for students and for staff. While newer elementary buildings might have sinks in classrooms, middle and high schools tend to have multi-stall bathrooms. Many school bathrooms are equipped with faucets, soap dispensers, toilet handles, and paper towel dispensers that students must touch.

Experts recommend that districts install outdoor hand-washing stations, which students can use before entering and leaving the building. They also recommend installing soap dispensers and water faucets that are activated by motion, which will reduce touchpoints and the spread of the virus. All classrooms should have a supply of hand sanitizer to give students throughout the school day.

Are there enough school nurses?

Experts recommend that every school building have at least one registered school nurse to monitor students' symptoms and isolate any sick students from the rest of the school. However, a quarter of schools across the country do not employ a nurse at all, and 35 percent of schools only have a part-time nurse, according to a 2018 survey from the National Association of School Nurses.

Will schools be sufficiently cleaned?

School districts will likely have to hire additional cleaning staff to make sure buildings are disinfected properly at the end of every day. Districts may also have to purchase new equipment, such as electrostatic disinfectant sprays.

Custodians should disinfect high-touch surfaces, like door handles, sink faucets, and handrails, multiple times throughout the school day. The frequent cleaning will have an additional psychological effect, Mokdad said: reminding students and staff that they need to be taking precautions and following the rules.

"There is a virus here," Mokdad said. "We want it to be physically visible."

Is there a plan to protect high-risk teachers and staff?

Adults older than 65 are at high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19, as are people with asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, serious heart conditions, chronic kidney disease, severe obesity, immunocompromised conditions, and liver disease, according to the CDC.

Experts say staff members with those risk factors should stay home from school. Possible solutions include letting vulnerable teachers continue to teach remotely, reassigning high-risk staff to other roles that can be done from home (such as remote tutoring or mentoring), or offering early retirement.