One-way hallways, fever checks in cars — state offers first school pandemic guidelines

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Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

DENVER | Local education officials charged with the almost paralyzing challenge of opening schools next fall just got some guidance from the state Department of Education. 

The Colorado Department of Education released a draft document Tuesday mapping out how local school districts might consider the myriad ins-and-outs of opening school doors when public health experts say they expect a second wave of the novel coronavirus.  

It’s the first official guidance from CDE, which is acknowledging and detailing responses to dilemmas Aurora-area superintendents already said they were mulling over last week: How will immuno-compromised and high-risk students and staff participate in classes? How will schools operate when public health experts recommend social distancing inside normally crowded classrooms, busses and hallways? And how can school staff try to fortify schools against COVID-19 entering in the first place? 

The questions are almost endless. Superintendent of Aurora Public Schools Rico Munn and Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Scott Siegfried said last week they were working with CDE to establish some unified guidance about how schools will again learning teaching during the pandemic. 

But the CDE draft document offers some possible although cursory solutions to the slew of problems likely to face school staff and students this fall. 

Public health first, learning second 

In its planning document, the education department maps out problems and recommends possible solutions districts should consider or ponder themselves. There’s still little information that is set in stone. 

Echoing area superintendents, teachers and other local leaders, CDE confirmed that public health experts will be king when making decisions. In Aurora, education administrators said they will follow the advice of officials at Tri-County Health Department, the local public health authority, when considering whether to keep a school open or close it down for some period. 

And in the document, CDE affirms that could happen a lot. A school should prepare to set up a plan for in-person learning only for the virus to spread among community members, landing everyone back at home, CDE said.  

The level of the outbreak should then dictate what a school does, CDE says.

If there’s “minimal and moderate” spread, for example, school leaders will work with local health experts to tweak their strategy and further minimize human contact in schools. If the situation gets worse, schools could also close schools for extended periods. 

But the exact circumstances will be somewhat up in the air come fall and beyond, officials say. 

To that end, CDE is recommending that schools consider bouncing between various types of school. 

If viral transmission is low, school might return to an in-person format educators say is best, but with many conditions and alterations to prevent physical contact and exposure, CDE says. 

Other school models would have staggered classes to further reduce the number of people inside a classroom or school building at one time. 

And through it all, CDE says schools should allow parents and staff who are at a higher risk of succumbing to the virus, or who are just plain worried, to keep learning remotely at home.

A new typical 

CDE echoed the thoughts of local superintendents in establishing the basics: if students and staff come to school, they might find themselves in a “staggered” cohort with fewer other students and friends. They might have their temperatures checked, have to wear a mask, sit in classrooms with a small number of students, limit their movements and touch as little as possible. 

If schools adopt plans CDE is asking officials to consider, a student might wake up in the morning and fill out a checklist asking for their temperature and the presence of any COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and shortness of breath. 

If they discover they have symptoms, they should stay home, CDE said.

At school, the student might get dropped off during staggered drop-off times aiming to minimize contact between people. CDE is again asking schools to consider routing cars through screening stations, where staff might check student temperatures there. Kids walking or biking to school could go through a different temperature-check screening.

In this scenario and one considered by Siegfried, the student who passes the screening would be granted entry to school. 

Once inside, the student might travel down a network of one-way hallways designed to reduce contact with others, CDE proposed.

Then, students could also remain in one class for much of the day, sit at desks spaced about six feet apart and be joined by different teachers.

That would be a departure from the typical arrangement to has students moving class-to-class throughout the day. CDE also recommends keeping track of individual students’ belongings in separate cubbies and minimizing sharing objects and equipment, and disinfecting items that might be used by multiple kids. 

Indeed, everything should be repeatedly disinfected, CDE said. That includes buses, regularly-touched items and surfaces that might be carrying the virus.

The student’s movements might be further restricted to some degree inside the school. CDE asked schools to ponder limiting the number of kids using a bathroom at the same time, for instance. Lockers could be locked for the school year. 

And CDE says band and choir classes “may need to be adjusted” because of the risk of expelling the virus when blowing into a trumpet or trying to reach a harmony. 

CDE also encourages everyone to wear a mask or cloth face covering inside the school per public health guidelines. The document says schools might implement “an influencer campaign” communicating  “masks are cool.”

New ideas 

Many of CDE’s ideas rest on the concept of “staggering” groups of people to limit exposure when students and staff would typically interact with each other in large groups.

It’s an idea Siegfried considered last week as a measure to tackle what Munn considered a basic math problem: limiting the sheer number of students in a building to abide by social distancing guidelines. 

CDE proposed that schools could be divided into “A” and “B” groups. One group might attend school for some period of time — perhaps a day, several days or several weeks — and rotate back home. Pick-ups, drop-offs, classes and passing periods could all become staggered. 

The document also proposes some new measures metro area superintendents did not air when speaking last week with the Sentinel. 

For example, a student might have the same teacher as last year even if they traveled up a grade. It’s a measure that could reinforce stability for students interacting in a school that would look totally different from last year, CDE said. 

Or, teachers might develop flexible grades. CDE said a fifth grade student could start their year covering the tail end of a fourth grade curriculum they might have missed during the switch to remote learning. And, students with more catching up to do could find themselves in a “cohort” spending their time learning together. 

Unanswered questions 

CDE cautioned that the draft document will shift in response to community and leadership recommendations. There’s a lot still left up in the air. 

Community members can offer feedback by following this link. 

One area that particularly concerns school communities is the future of special education. Thousands of students legally require group instruction, close contact with staff and even occupational therapy in their schools.

At this point, CDE is only asking school districts to consider how to meet these students’ needs. It’s a process school leaders and staff say they started months ago. 

It’s also likely that many Aurora students will still be learning at home with a computer for at least some part of the forthcoming school year. 

But many families still don’t have reliable internet access and devices, officials say, despite staff handing out tens of thousands of computers already this year. CDE says school districts should meet that need for every family, but the department doesn’t offer any strategies to do so. 

And there’s still the question of discipline and enforcement Siegfried raised last week: How will school staff deal with a student who refuses to wear a mask inside, or who deliberately flouts social distancing rules? 

There’s also a pending budget crisis that could strip schools of much-needed dollars in the coming years.