Importance of School Reopening Plans During COVID-19 Pandemic

The fluctuating coronavirus infection rates are causing great uncertainty in upcoming school reopening plans. Many areas of the country are seeing resurgence in infection rates, leading schools to announce a full online model. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all policy considerations for the upcoming school year start with a goal of having students physically present in school. They also fear that remote learning has resulted in serious emotional and health consequences for children.

As of now, the plans in Pennsylvania are varying including five days of in-person instruction, a hybrid schedule, and all online learning. Meanwhile, New Jersey schools are allowing parents to opt into full-time virtual learning. State and federal governments are not mandating that schools reopen or close fully, leaving the task of reopening in the hands of individual schools and districts. Therefore, schools have to devise plans for reopening based on their community’s unique needs and resources. Guidelines and considerations provided by back-to-school plans include the following:

Monitoring the health of students and staff. Students and staff must monitor their own health and stay home if they are sick.  Schools should set forth criteria to the families of their students and communicate regularly as additional information is acquired regarding the symptoms and effects of illness.

Practice social distancing. Schools should familiarize themselves with the options regarding social distancing recommendations and adhere to them.  If physical distancing of six feet is not plausible, schools can consider the use of plastic barriers or arranging desks to achieve maximum distance for the students and teachers.

Face coverings. Schools and teachers must have a clear message regarding the use of face coverings and (1) communicate with families about the policy, and (2) enforce the policy consistently, while (3) allowing for exceptions and alternatives where conditions or health issues require.  Acceptable face coverings can include cloth masks, face shields, and disposable masks.

Cleaning. Handrails, bathrooms, and doorknobs should be cleaned every few hours. Classrooms, hallways, and other spaces should be cleaned with spray and fog disinfectant, and hand sanitizer stations should be provided throughout the building.

Transportation. School buses should provide hand sanitizers and assigned seating that takes social distancing into account. Students and drivers must follow district guidelines regarding face coverings while on the bus.

Visitors. Visitors to the school building should be restricted to approved visitors, contractors, and delivery workers.  Individuals wishing to come to the school that are not contractors or delivery personnel must make appointments prior to their visit and it is encouraged to achieve most meetings virtually.

Infections. If a student or staff member is suspected to have an infection or tests positive, the areas where the student had contacts should be closed off for 24 hours and undergo deep cleaning. To this end, schools are encouraged to keep students in cohorts to limit interaction between students and teachers, and to monitor and control infections. If one person in a cohort tests positive, that group can be isolated, and the areas occupied by those individuals should be sanitized.

Critics of the reopening plans argue that the guidelines are broad and do not adequately safeguard staff and students from COVID-19. Also, guidelines do not address the additional costs of implementation. Many point out that certain schools lack sufficient ventilation to diminish the spread of germs and viruses.

Schools are encouraged to be adequately informed about risks, maintain open dialogue with families as information develops, and review and modify their opening plans as needed in light of developing information surrounding the COVID-19 infection.

Charter Schools

Parents who need to have their children return to school due to lack of adequate childcare and inability to provide homeschooling are increasingly looking to charter schools for solutions. These institutions may have more flexibility in devising plans that allow in-person learning and often have more experience educating students in a cyber environment if that option is chosen by families. In order to reopen, schools should ensure that buildings and facilities have best practices in place for cleaning and sanitization. Schools should create social distancing plans and reconfigure buildings to have floor markings to direct foot traffic to flow in one direction to avoid face-to-face interaction. Schools should also train staff to recognize signs of illness and develop flexible attendance and sick leave policies.

For further advice on how to plan your school reopening, contact the legal team at MacMain Leinhauser. Our attorneys provide legal counsel to schools in their daily operations, governance, and legal defense. For an initial consultation, call us at 484-318-7106 or contact us online. Our office is conveniently located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where we serve clients throughout Philadelphia, Chester County, and New Jersey.