Countless considerations come with reopening schools in a pandemic. From buses to lunchrooms, labs to playgrounds, the nearly 3 million students in Florida public schools typically gather in close quarters.
Looking toward August, local school officials say they’re developing plans that strike the balance of offering effective in-person schooling while keeping students and staff safe from the coronavirus. An outbreak in schools would send ripples of infection through the community.
In Pinellas County, one of the state’s biggest districts, school superintendent Mike Grego has enlisted the help of five local doctors who specialize in infectious diseases and pediatric care. They’ve toured campuses to learn how students move through the school day, talking through various scenarios and ideas.
“We wanted to know, what’s a day in the life of a child in the Pinellas County school system?" said Dr. Christina Canody, director of pediatric services for BayCare Health System. “How can they social distance? What does a classroom setup look like? What would need to be provided or wiped down?"
Answers to those questions and others are evolving all the time, just like the pandemic, Grego said. The group is making plans, but they’re tentative and fully dependent on how the state’s reopening impacts the number of local COVID-19 cases this summer.
It’s too soon to say for sure that schools will be able to welcome students back in the fall, Canody said. Other doctors on the team — from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, the Department of Health and Community Health Centers of Pinellas — were not available for interviews. But all, as well as school officials, recognize that nothing is certain, Grego said.
“If we have this tremendous spike in August right before school opening, then it will impact how we approach that opening,” he said, referring to the virus. “If we don’t and everything continues to get better and better … that’s what we’re planning for. But we don’t know exactly how the next few months with look."
As the doctors walked through schools, they hit different issues. Just one example: foreign language labs where kids share headsets. If campuses reopen, the district will likely ask students to bring their own, Grego said. Officials also are considering moving as many textbooks as possible online so lockers won’t be needed.
They visited the band room at Tarpon Springs High, realizing students might have to practice elsewhere, like the school’s auditorium, to keep enough space between them.
Students and staff should be prepared to wear masks for much of the school day upon their return, Grego said. The district intends to purchase and distribute reusable ones that can be worn when “social distancing is compromised," like on buses and in hallways.
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At some schools, an additional lunch period will be added to thin the crowd of students in the cafeteria at one time. At others, tables will be placed outside, in breezeways and courtyards, so students have more places to sit.
Keeping space between students will be somewhat easier in classrooms, which are typically about 800 square feet in elementary schools, Grego said. The district’s architectural office is working on renderings showing new campus setups that keep students farther apart, and asking teachers to label non-essential furniture to create room to spread out desks.
The request has heightened anxiety among educators who are wary about returning to campus, said Mike Gandolfo, president of Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. All of the unknowns are making them nervous.
“If I was in the classroom, I would seriously have to think about a leave of absence,” said Gandolfo, who lives with his disabled son. “I wouldn’t take the chance of bringing (the virus) back home, and I can’t expect others to take the chance either."
He said he hopes to see a substantial investment in education by the state, to fund everything from supplies, like masks and hand sanitizer, to additional mental health resources for students and staff struggling with the pandemic and the changes it continues to bring.
“Everything centers around a successful reopening of schools,” Gandolfo said. “If we don’t do it the right way, it will send our economy into a tailspin, and it could cost us lives."
There have been discussions about screening students for COVID-19 symptoms, Grego said. But it’s not feasible to check every student’s temperature before the start of school each day, and asking them to self-report presents challenges, too.
“It’s hard to ask a kindergarten student, ‘How is your sense of smell today? Do you have a fever?’” said Canody, the BayCare doctor. So the district plans to provide parents with information on signs and symptoms, and ask them to keep their children home if anyone in the family is feeling unwell, Grego said.
Though many parents are eager for schools to reopen, the district has fielded calls, emails and social media comments that show there’s a lot of anxiety, too. Grego said he hopes the district’s approach to planning builds families’ trust and confidence in the school district to keep safety at the forefront of all decisions.
“I really want to lead with medical advice,” he said. “We need to do this slowly and look at medical data. If it’s telling us to slow down, we need to do that.”
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