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Will Schools Reopen in September? And What Will That Look Like?

THURSDAY, June 11, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- The boisterous bustle of students jostling down crowded hallways to reach lockers and classrooms has long served as one of the most powerful memories of high school life for many.

Those loud, happy throngs might now belong to a bygone era, thanks to COVID-19.

Schools planning to reopen in the fall are weighing what's called the "pod" approach, in which middle and high school students remain isolated with their peers in the same classroom all day, said Dan Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association.

The traditional between-class hallway jam "really is conducive to infection, as opposed to isolating them in the same room for the whole day," Domenech said during a HealthDay Live! interview.

It's one of many ways that schools might operate differently in the days of COVID-19, if infection rates in their communities even allow them to reopen next school year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that middle and high schools consider adopting the elementary school model, in which "high school kids remain in the same room and the teachers move around," Domenech said.

Staggered school hours would make sure hallways remain relatively empty as students enter and leave the building. There's even talk of keeping the cafeterias closed and serving the kids lunch in their classroom "pod," so they remain in the classroom nearly all the school day.

A CDC checklist holds that schools should feel safe reopening if COVID-19 outbreaks are contained in their communities; teachers and students have been drilled on the importance of hand hygiene, face masks and social distancing; and ongoing monitoring is in place to detect and respond to an outbreak at the school.

"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when there will be an outbreak, because there will be outbreaks. We know that. We can expect and plan for it," said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute.

Most kids not vulnerable to severe COVID-19

Parents should feel reassured about their child's safety in going back to school, said Christakis, who also spoke with HealthDay Live!

"If a child gets COVID, there's a one in 1,000 chance that they will be hospitalized with it, and there is a one in 100,000 chance they will die from it," Christakis said. "Those are long odds, as they say. Your child's risk of getting hit by lightning over the course of their lifetime is one in 15,000, to give some perspective."

Precautions put in place at schools to prevent outbreaks are instead designed to protect adults -- teachers, parents and family members, Christakis explained.

"We know children themselves are at very low risk of getting sick with COVID. We don't know how big a risk they pose to pass COVID on to either teachers or family members," Christakis said. "It's unfortunate we don't know that, because that would make our decision-making a lot easier. We don't know how contagious they actually are."

The CDC recommends that schools reopen with plans to routinely clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched, stagger arrival and dismissal times for students, avoiding mixing students in common areas, and increasing the space between desks.

Time-honored traditions like "Career Day" likely will fall by the wayside, as schools are being encouraged to limit all non-essential visitors.

It also could be some time before kids attend group events that promote school spirit, such as student assemblies, school sports, student concerts and dances. The CDC is asking schools to reconsider any event that would bring kids in close contact with each other.

Parents also should be ready for the school to be closed at a moment's notice, in the event of an outbreak. The CDC recommends students and most staff be sent home at least two to five days upon finding a confirmed case at a school, so health officials can perform contact tracing and staff can disinfect areas used by the infected person.

All these changes are going to take place amid ongoing turmoil at schools related to both the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the economy, Domenech said.

Schools may face shortages in funding, teachers

"School districts that are already going to be suffering financially because of the economy may not have the dollars they need to implement the guidelines as they should be implemented," Domenech noted.

Further, some schools are likely to have a workforce shortage because teachers are afraid for their health, Domenech added.

"We already heard from quite a few teachers who are older and who have medical issues saying that they don't plan to come back," Domenech said. "They don't want to take the risk of being in an environment that's going to make them sick."

Elementary school teachers are going to be particularly challenged, since it's nearly impossible to make first-, second- and third-graders wear masks or adhere to social distancing, Domenech and Christakis said.

"You cannot expect kindergartners to social distance," Christakis said. "That's how children that age learn. They need to play with their peers. They will not get a meaningful experience if they're not hands-on with their peers."

That makes the "pod" strategy an even stronger option, the experts said.

"If there's an outbreak in classroom A, it's less likely it will spread to classroom B or C or D," Christakis said.

There also will need to be a sea change in the way health care is provided at schools, the experts added.

"School nurses are not allowed to do much in terms of medical practice," Domenech said. "They can't even give an aspirin unless the students bring their medication with them and it's in the office and the nurse can administer it."

To check sick students and detect potential outbreaks, schools are going to need health specialists in the building who can check temperatures and monitor symptoms, Domenech said.

"It has to go beyond what the nurse right now is allowed to do," Domenech said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about schools reopening after COVID-19 closures.

SOURCES: Dan Domenech, PhD, executive director, The School Superintendents Association; Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, director, Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Seattle Children's Research Institute

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