Temperature Screenings, One-Way Halls and Outside Classes?

From New Castle News

HARRISBURG — Eight statewide school lobbying groups have put together a 138-page guidebook to help local education leaders figure out the myriad of problems tied to mitigating the COVID-19 threats they’ll need to solve before schools reopen in the fall.

The report, which organizers said involved input from about 150 educational professionals, administrators and others, sheds light on the challenges that school leaders expect to face and the strategies that they may take to overcome them.

Those include things like trying to determine whether schools will need to buy massive quantities of personal protective equipment, including masks for students and staff and how to manage the challenges of social-distancing on school buses and at school, said Nathan Mains, CEO of the Pennsylvania School Board Association.

While school officials welcomed the move by the state to flat-fund public schools in 2020-21 instead of cutting state spending on schools, local school districts are faced with making adjustments when they don’t know how they will pay for them.

School districts are looking to cut class size, to provide for social-distancing space between students, at a time time when they don’t have funding to hire more teachers, he said.

“They’re trying to do the absolute opposite things” at the same time, Mains said.

School districts are in the process of developing their health and safety plans that spell out how they will confront these problems. But at the moment, those plans are based on “best guesses” about the circumstances that schools will face in two months.

Other strategies included in the report:

-- Moving classes outside, when possible, including physical education and music classes, or moving classes from traditional classrooms to spaces like auditoriums where there will be more room for students;

-- Staggering meal times, or creating box lunches distributed in areas around the school to limit the need for congregating in the cafeteria; or serving meals in the classroom and having children eat at their desks.

-- Reducing or eliminating the use of lockers;

-- Making hallways one-way;

-- And keeping students in one class and have the teachers move from room-to-room

Ed Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, said that the final decisions will be made by local officials, but many school leaders were seeking clearer guidance on how they should prepare.

“Some school districts want a clear recipe on what to do,” he said. Other district leaders want to be able to pick and choose what steps to take, Albert said.

“What works in School District A, may not work in School District B,” he said.

Albert said that while schools can now begin developing their health and safety plans, he knows that some schools are putting off decisions until closer to the end of July when they will feel more comfortable that they can project what circumstances will be like when school reopens.

What is clear is that in at least some school districts, parents will be pressuring school leaders to keep school as close to normal as possible.

Albert said he’d spoken to two superintendents who’d surveyed families on expectations about school reopening.

In both cases, the vast majority of people who responded indicated that hoped students wouldn’t be required to wear masks at school.

Deciding whether to acquire PPE and what type of PPE must be acquired creates a tense Catch-22, Mains said.

If school officials decide that students must wear masks, local schools will want to have some masks available to provide to students if they don’t bring them from home, Mains said.

School officials fret over whether to make bulk purchases of face masks for students that they might not need, or worry that if they don’t buy it, they’ll be left in the lurch if they need the masks and don’t have them, he said.

Other issues that have emerged as school leaders pieced through all the changes they must confront are problems that have more to do with public health than education, such as how to isolate a student if he or she appears to have symptoms of coronavirus, Mains said.

“You don’t want them sitting in the nurse’s office with a kid who bumped his head falling in gym class,” Mains said. That means schools will need to identify an isolation room to hold students with coronavirus-like symptoms until they can be sent home.

Schools will also have to decide whether they only isolate students based on observable symptoms or whether they use temperature screening, upon arrival at school or on the bus, according to the report. The report notes that trying to temperature screen students as they board the bus would be both expensive and “extremely difficult” to accomplish.

The report also indicates that schools will have to decide how to temperature screen students, staff and volunteers at extracurricular activities, and whether members of the public who want to attend extracurricular activities will be expected to pass temperature screenings to get in.

Busing students remains one of the most daunting challenges. Guidelines from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention calls for limiting students to one per seat on the bus, with empty seats between students.

School districts trying to come close to those social-distancing requirements are looking at things like running buses over their routes multiple times each day so that fewer students need to ride at once, he said.

The report itself notes that satisfying the social-distancing requirements set by the CDC will be unattainable for many school districts.

•Achieving the CDC-recommended social distancing guidelines in the transportation system is, in most cases, an unrealistic expectation,” the report notes, pointing out that even in normal circumstances, school districts struggle to get enough bus drivers. “Staffing and equipment procurement is not feasible in the few months that are left to prepare for the return to school … Mass scheduling changes are unrealistic in the few months to prepare.”

In addition to the PSBA and the PARSS, the groups involved in creating the reopening schools report were: the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units, the Pennsylvania Principals Association, and the Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators.

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