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Redesigning Schools to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19

Bill Grote

Redesigning Schools to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19

Posted: August 14, 2020 | Project Management

With COVID-19 cases spiking throughout the country,and the new school year just around the corner, many unanswered questions remain. Whether or not it’s safe to return to school in the midst of a pandemic is weighing heavily on the minds of parents and teachers.

Some schools have settled on teaching as a hybrid experience, consisting of limited social distancing classrooms and augmented with online learning from home. With the hybrid experience, classrooms are used only one or two days a week, and for limited hours. But the limited time students spend in the classroom will still have to be altered for new CDC-approved social distancing guidelines. Face coverings will need to be required and enforced (these are kids). Hand washing will have to be encouraged and enforced, and bathrooms and social areas supervised to limit the congregating and socializing that kids love to do.

To allow for social distancing, schedules will have to change to allow for fewer students in the classroom. Narrow hallways will have to convert to one-way passages. Masks must be mandatory and enforcement regarding masks and distancing must be taken seriously for any of these mitigation practices to be effective. One can only imagine how difficult it will be to enforce mask rules on rebellious students when some of our own leaders refuse to wear a mask during their appointed meetings.

In this shifting environment, it’s likely that teachers will take on different roles — making them more like coaches and mentors than teachers. They can point students to online lectures and then provide guidance and feedback, both online and in the classroom, to help add interest and make connections across topics.

Each county and district within each state is making their own way across this new landscape. There are a loose set of CDC guidelines on distancing, but no solid path on how to actually carry them out.

Once the decision is made on which schools are to reopen first, a clear plan must be decided on that prioritizes the health and safety of students, educators, and families. In other countries facing COVID-19 crises, a number of health measures were put in place: schools prohibited morning meetings held in classes at the beginning of the day, forbade food sharing, and introduced new preventative practices like staggered student arrivals and more frequent cleaning and hand washing practices throughout the day.

Some countries, like Denmark, reduced the class size to as little as ten students. Sometimes they divided the class into two to three smaller groups and, whenever possible, held classes outside or in special heated tents which provided air flow and a “coolness” feature that the students enjoyed. Some have suggested the use of large scale tents, like those used at festivals, to house small scale classrooms, rather than forcing students and teachers into existing' school buildings with HVAC units not designed for these new conditions. Some suggest searching the community for unused venues like parks or patios that could be used for outdoor classrooms.

Denmark introduced new health measures for schools which required students to be seated at tables that were at least 6.5 feet apart. Students were required to wash their hands every two hours, and all educational materials and equipment were cleaned twice a day.

In some schools, additional portable toilets and sinks were installed to keep distancing in bathrooms. Downdraft fans in bathrooms can bring in outdoor air and force bathroom contamination towards the floor and out of range of young faces to prevent flow of the virus. To minimize risk of contagion, many schools reduced their hours or remained closed some days while students communicated online. To avoid crowds, parents were required drop off students at staggered times, sometimes even using different school entrances, and not allowed inside school buildings. While this may seem like a logistical nightmare, it can and has been done. Staggering class times can help to reduce hallway congestion. Also, desks can be fitted with shields to block indoor saliva particles or droplets.

One of the key points of reopening schools is that any child or parent who presents even minor symptoms must not attend school. Importantly, children, parents, and teachers at increased risk due to existing health conditions should also not attend. Ideally, daily testing of all students and staff would ensure safety. Even weekly testing would be useful, as many carriers of the COVID-19 virus have no symptoms.

While anxiety-inducing, the gradual reopening of schools during the crisis provides an unparalleled opportunity to rethink the day-to-day experiences of students and teachers. What we learn and how well we handle it will prepare us for the next pandemic or crises.

There is also a bright side to all of this chaos. With students having had to take the lead in their own learning, they may actually more appreciate their interactions with their teachers. Instructors are expected to take on more of a “coach” role in the learning role. Teachers might actually spend less time on lecturing, and more time helping students with their projects as they develop their own actual problem-solving skills.

Bill Grote is a staff writer for DCD Magazine.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay