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In a report posted on its website over the weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains the gating criteria that should be met before opening the economy. The report also contains a section containing its guidance for opening K-12 schools – presupposing that the region in which schools are located meets CDC’s gating criteria.

The guidelines are much more detailed than the vague and general checklist to open schools that were made public last Thursday.

Anyone reading CDC’s guidance will walk away with the feeling that schools will not be anywhere near the same as they were before the pandemic, unless a vaccine is discovered and in widespread use, or an effective treatment of COVID-19 is discovered.

In the introduction to its guidance on opening schools, the CDC says: “As communities consider a gradual scale up of activities towards pre-COVID-19 operating practices in centers for learning, such as K-12 schools and summer day camps, CDC offers the following recommendations to keep communities safe while resuming peer-to-peer learning and providing crucial support for parents and guardians returning to work. These recommendations depend on community monitoring to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. Communities with low levels of COVID-19 spread and those with confidence that the incidence of infection is genuinely low (e.g., communities that remain in low transmission or that have entered Step 2 or 3) may put in place the practices described below as part of a gradual scale up of operations. All decisions about following these recommendations should be made in collaboration with local health officials and other State and local authorities who can help assess the current level of mitigation needed based on levels of COVID-19 community transmission and the capacities of the local public health and healthcare systems, among other relevant factors. CDC is releasing this interim guidance, laid out in a series of three steps, to inform a gradual scale up of operations. The scope and nature of community mitigation suggested decreases from Step 1 to Step 3. Some amount of community mitigation is necessary across all steps until a vaccine or therapeutic drug becomes widely available.”

In Step 1, the CDC recommends, “Schools that are currently close, remain closed” and use e-learning or distance learning opportunities for all students.

In Step 2, schools may remain open “with enhanced social distancing measures and for children who live in the local geographic area only.”

In Step 3, schools may “Remain open with distancing measures. Restrict attendance to those from limited transmission areas (other Step 3 areas) only.”

CDC’s report does not define which schools fall into steps 1, 2, or 3, or when school districts would move between the steps.

There are many practices recommended for schools and that apply to all schools in Steps 1, 2 and 3. They include healthy hygiene practices, including mandating the use of face coverings for all staff, and encouraging face coverings for students to the extent feasible, particularly for older students.

CDC recommends practices for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, school facilities, and school buses; procedures to keep children’s’ belongings separated from other children’s’ belongings; procedures to limit sharing of art supplies, books, food, and other items; procedures for training staff; procedures to implement in the event a staff member, child or visitor becomes sick; and for maintaining healthy operations, including temperature screenings of staff and students, if feasible.

The recommendations for social distancing for schools in steps 1 and 2 will present a challenge. They are:

  • Ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible by having the same group of children stay with the same staff (all day for young children, and as much as possible for older children).
  • Restrict mixing between groups.
  • Cancel all field trips, inter-group events, and extracurricular activities (Step 1).
  • Limit gatherings, events, and extracurricular activities to those that can maintain social distancing, support proper hand hygiene, and restrict attendance of those from higher transmission areas (Step 2; Note: restricting attendance from those in Step 1 areas).
  • Restrict nonessential visitors, volunteers, and activities involving other groups at the same time.
  • Space seating/desks to at least six feet apart.
  • Turn desks to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other), or have students sit on only one side of tables, spaced apart.
  • Close communal use spaces such as dining halls and playgrounds if possible; otherwise stagger use and disinfect in between use.

  • If a cafeteria or group dining room is typically used, serve meals in classrooms instead. Serve individually plated meals and hold activities in separate classrooms and ensure the safety of children with food allergies.

  • Stagger arrival and drop-off times or locations, or put in place other protocols to limit close contact with parents or caregivers as much as possible.

  • Create social distance between children on school buses (for example, seating children one child per seat, every other row) where possible.

    The social distancing guidelines applicable for a school in Step 3 are as follows:

  • Consider keeping classes together to include the same group of children each day, and consider keeping the same child care providers with the same group each day.
  • Allow minimal mixing between groups. Limit gatherings, events, and extracurricular activities to those that can maintain social distancing, support proper hand hygiene, and restrict attendance of those from higher transmission areas (Step 1 or 2 areas).
  • Continue to space out seating and bedding (head-to-toe positioning) to six feet apart, if possible.
  • Consider keeping communal use spaces closed, such as game rooms or dining halls, if possible; if this is not possible, stagger use and disinfect in between uses.
  • Consider continuing to plate each child’s meal, to limit the use of shared serving utensils and ensure the safety of children with food allergies.
  • Consider limiting nonessential visitors, volunteers, and activities involving other groups. Restrict attendance of those from higher transmission areas (Step 1 or 2 areas).
  • Consider staggering arrival and drop-off times or locations, or put in place other protocols to limit close contact with parents or caregivers as much as possible.

At the District 65 School Board meeting on May 18, Dr. Phil Ehrhardt, Co-Interim Superintendent, said, “We’ll be looking at putting together different scenarios for the fall.” One scenario he mentioned was “continuing remote learning.” Another was “some type of modified returning to school.”

Dr. Ehrhardt said administrators discussed CDC’s guidelines earlier in the day on May 18, and added, “We have been told that the Governor is going to be coming out at the end of the month with guidelines which we think will be fairly similar to the CDC guidelines.

 “We’re working on different scenarios and once we get more guidance from the State by the end of the month, we will come back to the Board with a plan,” he said. He added that they were putting together a task force which will look at curriculum and instruction, transportation, health and other areas.