COVID-19 cases are surging across the U.S., a harsh reality that students, parents, teachers and staff feared would happen when many schools opened for fall sessions. As a result, schools throughout the nation have closed and shifted to remote learning in recent weeks.
What will it take to return kids to the classroom and keep schools open? Though vaccines have been approved, it may be months before children, their families, and school personnel are vaccinated. Until then, implementing a plan that includes processes for virus detection and response is paramount, says Dr. Jonathan Spero (www.inhousephysicians.com), an expert on pandemic preparedness whose company is delivering COVID-19 testing to K-12 schools in New York City.
“The problem that schools are facing is there is still a significant prevalence of COVID in many communities,” Spero says. “Schools need to do everything they can to prevent student outbreaks; otherwise it’s going to continue shutting down schools.
“But on top of that, you have to deal with a tremendous amount of anxiety. The students, parents, faculty, and staff are all on pins and needles because they are feeling insecure about their health. The only way to address all of this is through a comprehensive health security strategy that can work when so many variables are in play.”
Spero offers these suggestions to safely open schools while navigating the continuing COVID-19 crisis:
Daily temperature checks. “They’re not a fool-proof way to see if someone has COVID,” Spero says. “A significant number are asymptomatic, but fever is a common symptom, and because it is, temperature checks should be a fundamental daily procedure.” Spero suggests two ways to organize the temperature-checking process at schools: designate some staff members, who can each scan 200-300 students an hour; 2) use thermal scanners, a device that can scan 400-600 per hour.
Screening for symptoms and close contacts. This starts at home, where parents can help prevent the spread at schools by keeping children home who are showing COVID-like symptoms or have been in close contact with someone with COVID. “At schools, everyone returning should be screened on a range of symptoms,” Spero says. “Those with symptoms should be sent home and referred for testing.”
COVID surveillance testing. Though this is rarely being done in K-12 schools, Spero says, “Frequent asymptomatic testing of the student population is a very effective way to limit the spread of the virus in the school.” Positive test results necessitate the immediate need to perform contact tracing with the goal of identifying everyone who was in close contact with the infected student.
Daily prevention protocols. Spero says, “Prevention measures include mask-wearing by all students and staff throughout the school day, frequent disinfection of surfaces, the availability of hand sanitizers in classrooms, frequent reminders to wash hands, and as much social distancing as possible in classrooms.”
“Positivity rates in the community need to be held to a reasonable level for schools in an area to be open,” Spero says. “And when they are open, there are a lot of moving parts for school officials to deal with in order to avoid an outbreak. But if they’re not dealt with, ultimately your school could be closing again.”