Return to Work: Reopening Schools

As the business community and state leaders think through what it will take to reopen the Louisiana economy, one thing is clear: any return to work must come together with a return to school and childcare. As BRAC writes about in our Safe at Work framework, parents and guardians will only be able to return to the workforce outside their homes if safe childcare is available.   

The CDC recently released guidance for cleaning and disinfecting spaces, including schools, and this and other advice will be essential to childcare and education providers. To help BRAC analyze the complex landscape and to ground guidance like the CDC’s in practical application, BRAC reached out to Sarah Broome, founder and executive director of Thrive Academy, a special state school located in Baton Rouge. Here, Ms. Broome provides details about Thrive’s plan to reopen and the health and safety protocols it has started implementing.  

Are you planning to reopen school in the fall?

Yes. We desperately want our students back on campus and are trying to do everything in our power right now to ensure we can have them back in the fall.  Obviously, we will continue to follow state and local direction on reopening, but we are proceeding with the goal of being open in the fall. 

How have you approached the idea of returning to school in the Fall in 2020?

Our knowledge of how to prevent spread of COVID-19 and time to prepare are the biggest changes that have taken place between when schools closed in Mid-March and our (hopeful) return to school in August.  We do not expect to go back into the school year with easy and widespread testing or a reliable vaccine or treatment.  But our enhanced knowledge and the time we’ve been given will allow us to take action to keep people safe. It is imperative that we use both those resources now to give ourselves the best chance at a successful school year. 

Like everyone else we are looking at the most up to date information, sharing information among peers, and making the best decisions we can.  Wexpect plans will evolve over the course of next year and we hope our communities and families will be patient with us as we figure out how to make this work.

Your school is a residential school, which means it likely has more complex needs than most schools.

Right, our students live on campus with us in a dormitory and so we are trying to take extra precautions.  All steps we are taking in the school are also being taken in the dorm – along with some additional cleaning procedures in shared spaces. 

What are you changing about your physical set up?

We are rethinking everything in our building to allow for social distancing, including: 

  • Limiting the number of students in classrooms; 
  • Arranging the desks six feet apart; 
  • Marking out social distancing spacing on the floors of the hallways; 
  • Removing cafeteria tables and replacing them with single desks that are spaced six feet apart; 
  • Installing permanent thermometers in strategic places for daily temperature checks; and, 
  • Altering our lobby to create a station to screen visitors and ensure they are wearing masks.   

Some of these physical changes also require schedule changes to work.  Middle and high school classes will run on different and offset schedules to limit the number of students in the hallways.  We will run six lunch shifts in order to ensure students can stay six feet apart during lunch.  As a small school we are able to do this by alternating our day by 30 minutes – but larger campuses may need to consider significantly larger schedule changes to ensure safety on campus. 

How are you changing cleaning procedures?

We will be using a sprayed solution to disinfect every room every day and cleaning “high touch” surfaces like door handles every few hours. We have also installed hand sanitizer stations in every room of the building and will be having students and staff use them after entering and before leaving each room.   

Will your teachers and students wear masks?

Yes.  Our plan right now is for all staff, students and visitors to wear masks at all times on campus.  We have ordered samples of a number of different washable masks to test their durability and comfort for kids.  After looking at the numbers and the huge demand for masks, we determined it would make the most sense for us to have 10 washable masks per person on campus.  We plan to wash the student masks on campus and allow the staff to wash their own.  All visitors will be issued a disposable mask if they do not already have one before coming on campus.  

But masks also come with their own set of challenges; nonverbal communication is critical in schools and masks make it extremely difficult.  We are looking into ways to help students manage this new and difficult challenge.   

What other things should school leaders be thinking about?

We’ve developed a list of questions we’re working through:  

  • Do we need to alter our transportation plan to allow for only one student per seat on a bus? 
  • What role could the antibody test play in how we set up the year?  
  • Do we need to remove or shutdown water fountains – and if so – how do we ensure students still have access to drinking water?  
  • How do we help students learn social distancing when so much of how they naturally communicate and interact happens closer than six feet apart?  
  • Should we look at alternate and non-traditional grade level configurations so that students who fell behind during this time have the time to catch up without being “held back”?  
  • How do we still have quality parent/guardian involvement when we will not be able to allow visitors on campus?    

We are also looking at things we can do now to be better prepared for some version of online learning next year.  Even in the best-case scenariothere will be times when individual students or staff have to be quarantined at home.  In those cases, we are thinking through how we can act now to ensure a relatively seamless transition for them.   

In addition to making sure we keep our chromebook “fleet” in good shape, we are looking at adding cameras to classrooms that will make it easy for teachers to essentially “flip a switch” and stream their in-person class online for kids who can’t be there in the room.  Similarly, we are looking at ways to outfit classrooms to allow teachers to teach from home if they must be quarantined due to exposure but are not sick or showing symptoms and feel well enough to teach. All of this requires physical modifications and ordering equipment that is mostly backordered right now. If schools want to have these things in place for August, they must begin planning and ordering now. 

How can parents and guardians help?

The most important thing parents can do is something they are already good at – look out for the health and safety of their childBoth your child and all the other children at school are dependent on you keeping your child home if they are sick or if you know they have been exposed to COVID-19.  Parents with children who are high risk might need to consider whether they want their children to return.  Schools will take significant steps to keep everyone safe, but it is simply not possible to create an environment without risk right now.  We are preparing plans that will allow individual students to quarantine if they are sick/exposed or stay home if they are high risk and still complete their schoolwork.   

Parents should also be taking this time to teach children about social distancing.  Kids have gotten a crash course in this over the past month. But for the most part, they have been at home with their families and thinking about social distancing has not been an everyday part of their lives. It is normal and developmentally appropriate for kids to seek physical connections like hugs and high-fives, but right now that can be unsafe for everyone. Parents should use time now and over the summer to teach kids to keep safe distances from others (including their friends) to help keep everyone safe and in school in the fall.  

We have also seen (and smiled at) all your social media posts appreciating us! Please trust that we are missing your kids and want them back on campus as much as you do! While you have stepped in as your child’s homeschool teacher (and are maybe feeling a special level of appreciation for their classroom teacher) teacher appreciation week is next week.  This year, may I suggest a gift card to a local restaurant for the classroom teacher (and a bottle of wine for the homeschool teacher)? Sarah Broome is the Founder and Executive Director of Thrive, a statewide residential school for students who face difficult obstacles along their education pathways.   

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