The CDC guidelines are clear. They present the steps to return to in-person learning, if conditions are favorable. And they offer a step by step planning checklist and mitigation strategy toolkit to assist, K-12 Schools COVID-19 Mitigation Toolkit (cdc.gov).
The problem is, most people won’t bother to read them, or will stop reading after it supports their contention that schools are “safe” for our children. That is not what the guidelines say. They say, very clearly and in several sections, that schools are safe if mitigation strategies are followed. And that is a very big IF.
How many school districts have HVAC systems that are “MERVS-13”? How many have sufficient fresh air ventilation and air filtration? How many are willing to hire more teachers for the recommended “smaller groups” the guidelines suggest? Where do they find the extra class space? What about enhanced cleaning? Who is going to pay for additional Custodial staff and overtime?
And where are they supposed to get the money to pay for it all?
I’m sure most school districts will do some version of some of the things recommended. And that is why some districts will fail. And it won’t be their fault. Not entirely. It is the misunderstanding that is inherent in the CDC offering “guidelines” rather than actual policy.
To be clear, the CDC is not in the “policy” business. That is the role of elected officials, and that is why it matters who is on the school board and that they understand the role they have in implementing policy that follows the guidelines.
Sadly, given the number of school board members who are ignoring the CDC recommendation regarding start times, I don’t have much faith many will do what is absolutely needed. I think they will use the easy out. The fact that the CDC is only putting out “guidelines”. And the confusion around who actually has the authority to compel, well, just try reading various sources. The State says follow local and federal. Federal says it is up to local and state. And local? They say they will follow state and federal. It is maddening. And many at the local level do not truly seem to understand the responsibility they have to enact strong public policy.
Let’s start with the two simple things the CDC recommends that I think will be difficult, if not impossible, to compel: universal and “correct” masking and 6-foot social distance.
Why won’t this happen? Human nature, sports and lack of funding.
The first, and most simple part, classroom sizes. Get ready for the math portion of mitigation strategy. If we use the average Elementary School class size of 900 Square Feet, that means you cannot have an average class size at 20 students, because you would need a classroom that is over 1,000 Square Feet, and with furniture and teachers may be over 1,500 SF, to have 20 students with 6-foot social distance. Simple. Straight forward. But will school boards pay attention when it means they will need more teachers and more classrooms?
Next, the guidelines are clear, fresh air is best. So we need windows that open and classrooms should be aired out between sessions. How many classrooms have windows that open and who is going to pay to retrofit if this is needed?
Another important point, students cannot “move” from class to class, this is especially important for Middle and High Schools to note. How would you ensure 6-foot social distance in hallways? And you would need to disinfect and air out classrooms for each new group.
Which brings us to contact tracing and group activities. Quite simply, group activities can only happen outdoors, be extremely limited, and certainly contact sports are not a good idea. At all. Period. End of recommendation.
They can play other sports. There is dance, martial arts, yoga, golf, tennis. Plenty of options. Not optional is sports where students have to have direct contact and cannot maintain 6-foot social distance and wear a mask.
Group restrooms must be organized by groups of students. i.e. cohorts or pods, for possible contact tracing and limiting risk as part of mitigation. At the Elementary level especially, regular and proper handwashing at specific intervals is highly recommended.
You cannot have mass use of cafeteria. And if your district does continue to use a cafeteria, the recommendation is MINIMUM 6-foot social distance and all students sit facing the same direction. Plus fresh air ventilation.
The guidelines also say that there needs to be isolation areas for anyone who might begin to show symptoms. And that staff should wait at least 24 hours before cleaning an area where there was someone exhibiting symptoms.
Read that again. 24 hour wait before cleaning. That means if it is a classroom, they cannot use that room the next day. There is more, but these are the essential elements. As I said, my faith that schools will do these is low. I keep going back to the fact that in many school districts we can’t convince 5 board members to go to the CDC recommended start time and many communities saw mass hysteria at the thought of doing what is in the best interest of students according to health experts.
This is a complicated issue. There is no simple answer. There is no quick fix. Forcing schools to return to in-person is not a panacea. Teenagers were depressed and anxious before the pandemic. Too much homework, too little sleep, too many classes and not enough respite are the problems. We must deal with the very real mental health crisis that was exposed by the pandemic. The pandemic is making this crisis worse, it is not causing it. Like many of our problems in public schools, the problem is lack of funding. We have to stop allowing legislators to balance their budgets on the backs of our children. As President Biden once said in a speech, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”
Let’s meet this challenge. Our children need us.
Lisa Longo, former Phoenixville Area School District President of the Board