As Florida continues on its path to reopening under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ guidelines, health experts are releasing their recommendations on how to safely reopen schools and bring students back to the classroom.
After the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the state on March 1, the governor announced in April that all schools in Florida would need to remain closed and participate in distance or virtual learning for the remainder of the academic year. Many students never returned to their classrooms after spring break.
Dr. Barbara Jenkins, Orange County Public Schools Superintendent, said in a conference Thursday that schools will likely undergo big changes before students can return and that the county is already working on a plan to implement them when the time comes.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with schools yet,” Jenkins said. “Considering three different models but one thing is clear... If social distancing is still in place, buses would only be able to transport 12 children and each classroom would only be able to hold half the students. I don’t envy the governor on these decisions.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been at the forefront of the coronavirus pandemic, working to establish new sets of guidelines to protects Americans against the novel disease.
As schools across the state and nation begin to plan for the fall semester experts with the CDC said there are major precautions that need to be put in place to keep students safe.
According to the CDC, virtual learning is the safest option for students, teachers and staff, carrying the least risk for spreading and contracting COVID-19.
Small, in-person classes, activities, and events carry more risk that virtual learning, but experts say groups of students would need to stay together with the same teacher throughout school days, ensuring that groups do not mix. Under this model, the CDC said students would need to remain at least 6 feet apart and be careful not to share objects.
Experts said full-sized, in-person classes, activities, and events carry the most risk to students, teachers and staff. Students who are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities have a high risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19, experts said.
A school that does make the decision to reopen would need to take precautionary measures to keep students, teachers and staff safe - some of those measures, according to the CDC, include:
- Staying at home when necessary: anyone who feels ill, has any symptoms of COVID-19 or who has been near someone with COVID-19 should not come to school
- Maintaining proper hand washing and respiratory etiquette such as covering coughs and sneezes with the crease of the elbow
- Teaching and reinforcing the wear of cloth face coverings
- Maintaining and providing adequate supplies such as disinfectant cleaners, hand soaps and hand sanitizers
- Posting signs in highly visible locations that promote health safety measures
While the risk of children becoming infected with COVID-19 remains low in comparison to other demographics, children may face more severe after-effects from the disease.
According to news partner Florida Today, Florida’s surgeon general has acknowledged that a syndrome that attacks children and is associated with COVID-19 has surfaced in Florida, adding yet another critical layer to diagnosing and treating the disease.
MIS-C manifests in people under age 21 who are positive for COVID-19 or have antigens or have been exposed to COVID-19 in the four weeks prior to the onset of symptoms.
The inflammatory syndrome has symptoms that mirror a condition known as Kawasaki syndrome, which, according to the CDC, include fever, rash, swelling of the hands and feet, irritation and redness of the whites of the eyes, swollen lymph glands in the neck and irritation and inflammation of the mouth, lips and throat.
Officials with the CDC said maintaining clean and healthy environments for students would critical. Frequently touched surfaces like playground equipment, door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains within the school and on school buses would need to be disinfected at least daily or between use as much as possible, according to experts. Use of shared objects like gym or physical education equipment, art supplies, toys and games should be limited when possible, or cleaned between every use, CDC officials said.
The CDC recommended modified layouts within classrooms that would space seating and desks 6 feet apart and turning desks to all face one direction. The installation of physical barriers, such as sneeze guards and partitions, particularly in areas where it is difficult for individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart is recommended, as well as physical guides, such as tape on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls, to ensure that staff and children remain at least 6 feet apart.
Non-essential visitors, volunteers and activities involving external groups or organizations should be limited whenever possible. Virtual activities and events in lieu of field trips, student assemblies, special performances, school-wide parent meetings, and spirit nights, as possible, according to the CDC.
News 6 spoke to parents who said they do not have high hopes for the enforcement of guidelines like social distancing in schools.
Brenda Ripley is a Seminole County parent who has two daughters - one a senior who finished her school year virtually
“They’re not going to be able to decrease busloads to accommodate every child to school on time to ride the bus,” Ripley said. “Portables are another problem, there are portables that don’t have bathrooms so they don’t have sinks and they have to leave their classroom. It’s just not going to physically work. This is a ridiculous standard and to say this is our new normal. This is not normal.”
Florida Education Association Vice President Andrew Spar echoed concerns that some measures, while important to health safety, may be disruptive to learning.
“The new guidelines make clear how much thought will need to go into safely reopening schools and just how many of our spaces and procedures will need to change," Spar said. “As we’re already hearing, requiring teachers and staff to wear masks could create real problems in some classrooms, especially with students who face learning challenges. Acting on the guidelines also will require significant investment. Safe schools must be sufficiently funded schools, and state lawmakers need to bear that in mind going forward.”
It remains unclear where schools will fall into DeSantis’ reopening plan for the state, but schools will need to modify their practices and standards before students, teachers and staff can physically return to the classroom.