Schools should expect some students and staff to become infected with COVID-19 this coming school year. That’s according to joint guidance released Thursday by state health and education agencies.
“As part of their planning to reopen, schools should expect that there will be students who get COVID-19 and that those students will possibly expose other[s] in the school setting,” the guidance reads.
While schools can’t ensure that the virus won’t enter their building, officials say they can take steps to limit its spread, such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, sanitizing shared surfaces, and closely monitoring students and staff for coronavirus symptoms.
This acknowledgment of the challenges to come serves as the introduction to an extensive document outlining health guidelines from the Louisiana Department of Health and “best practices” for schools developed by the Louisiana Department of Education. The report was also created in coordination with the Resilient Louisiana Commission.
LDH guidelines are conditions that schools — both public and private — must meet in order to reopen. “Best practices” as outlined by LDOE are recommended but not required. That’s because LDH has enforcement powers and LDOE does not.
With the new school year quickly approaching — and coronavirus cases on the rise — school districts say the guidance is desperately needed as they continue to determine what specific policies they will institute for the 2020-21 school year.
State health and education officials aligned their fall guidance with the state’s larger plan for phased reopening. As long as Louisiana is in Phase 1, 2 or 3 of reopening, schools are allowed to provide in-person instruction if they adhere to health and safety standards.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We know there are vast differences between schools, systems, and communities across the state,” State Superintendent of Schools Cade Brumley wrote in his introduction to the report. “It’s our responsibility to develop guidance in conjunction with public health officials, then allow local leadership to make decisions based on the unique needs in their community,”
This flexibility is present in phrases like “maximum extent possible,” which allows individual districts to make their own decisions based on school environment and student needs.
Facial Coverings And Symptom Screening
Adults and students in the third grade and older should wear face masks “to the maximum extent possible,” when attending school, according to guidance issued by LDH.
"This includes classrooms. Most important, face coverings should be worn during arrival, dismissal and any other transition within the school building," the recommendations say.
When students arrive at school, they will be screened for symptoms, a process that includes a temperature check. Students who are suspected to be ill will be isolated and sent home.
When a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, schools should consider closing the school for three to five days to assess whether the school environment is “a source of ongoing COVID-19 spread,” according to the guidance.
“The decision to close schools is an individual, case-by-case process,” the guidance reads. “That decision will ultimately be made by school leadership, with guidance and expertise from their Regional Medical Director.”
The state also offered phase-specific “requirements” that depend on where Louisiana is in the reopening process. The state is currently in Phase 2, which means the maximum group size is 25, including adults. Once the state moves to Phase 3, groups will be limited to 50 individuals.
LDOE recommends that parents drive their children to school if possible, as school bus capacity will be reduced to 25, 50 or 75 percent depending on which phase the state is in.
While younger students should stay in an assigned group and not interact with others, older students will be allowed to change groups as long as they can maintain a “physical distance of 6 feet” from others.
Large shared spaces such as cafeterias and gymnasiums should only be used by one group at a time unless barriers can be used to divide groups. Outdoor spaces can be shared by multiple groups as long as they maintain their distance from one another. While students are unlikely to eat lunch together, they can probably still go outside for recess.
Under Phase 1 and 2, schools should “refrain from contact and high-risk sports.” These activities are permitted “within defined groups” under Phase 3, though schools should also consider guidance released by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.
Because the coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets, chorus and band activities should not resume until Phase 3 and maximum physical distance should be maintained.
Schools Should Prepare For In-Person And Remote Learning
School systems are expected to prepare three different scenarios for the fall: traditional, hybrid and virtual.
Traditional consists of in-person learning at school, virtual consists of entirely remote education, and hybrid offers a combination of the two, according to LDOE.
“I've had a number of conversations with school leaders who are working through those processes,” Brumley told reporters Thursday. “They're also building those [online systems] out because should there be a need to switch to hybrid or go fully remote they want to be in a better place than where we were last year in March when the buildings were closed.”
If Louisiana is still in Phase 2 when the school year begins, Brumley said he expects schools to rely on hybrid learning. Capacity limits in classrooms and on school busses will make it difficult if not impossible to bring all students back, therefore some students will have to learn from home.
He also said schools will also need to have these systems in place in order to accommodate parents who decide not to send their children back to school even when classroom instruction is available.
One concern for school districts is the issue of mandatory instructional minutes or “seat time.” Schools are required to teach six hours a day, at a minimum of 177 days each year.
The guidelines put forward this week state that “current laws and policies pertaining to compulsory attendance, instructional minutes and state assessments will remain in place.” All schools are expected to connect with students daily and provide student feedback weekly, regardless of what educational model is in place.
Schools are expected to assess “unfinished learning gaps” by screening students within the first 30 days of school and then create individual plans for students with significant learning gaps.
LDOE also suggests that schools consider screening returning students for mental health concerns so that they can provide additional support as needed.
The recommendations also flag the needs of particular student populations including recent graduates, English learners, and students with disabilities.
High schools are expected to connect with members of the Class of 2020 and provide college and career support through December. English learners and students with disabilities should have access to the necessary resources so language support and other specific learning needs can be met even if students are learning remotely.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley is scheduled to discuss the recommendations with reporters at 2:30 p.m. and will appear before the Senate Education Committee on Thursday at 6 p.m. to discuss school reopenings.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley will appear before the Senate Education Committee on Thursday at 6 p.m. to discuss school reopenings.
This story has been updated througout.