Beyond face masks and physical distancing, a new detailed guide to safely reopen California schools suggests a radical overhaul of classroom instruction to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The new guidelines in a 55-page how-to manual released Monday by California’s Department of Education make clear that everything about school will be different, from start to finish, when the fall term starts. California’s 6.2 million students can expect temperature checks upon entering schools and buses, extensive hand washing throughout the day, physical distancing requirements — in classes, in hallways, at recess, on school buses — and face coverings for students and staff at all times except when eating and drinking.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on everything we know about providing education,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. “It forces us to enter into a new conversation about the way we provide instruction.”
Ultimately, school districts will decide when and how to reopen campuses. Thurmond stressed that the guidelines are not mandatory and can’t offer a one-size-fits-all model for the state’s 1,000 school districts. But they aim to provide multiple scenarios to help schools find the best approach for safely reopening.
The manual titled, “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools,” can serve as a road map for school districts as they prepare for the return of classes, Thurmond said.
Many parents have expressed interest in continuing distance learning for safety reasons, and Thurmond said he is encouraging districts to maintain at-home instruction to the extent they can to ensure smaller class sizes.
“Parents are asking for it, let’s use that as a strategy, let’s plan for it,” Thurmond said about continued online learning in the fall, which will be needed as schools accommodate a smaller number of students at a time. The department also recommends schools be prepared to shutter again and go online because of a virus outbreak, power shut-offs to prevent wildfires or natural disasters.
The guidelines include new models for classroom instruction, such as rotating students into classes just two days a week with the remainder of days at home doing distance learning or sending half the class to school for “in-person learning” several days a week while the rest of the class stays home for distance learning. The students would alternate each week. Schools might also opt to stagger schedules, with AM-PM rotations of students.
The guidelines suggest temperature checks and hand sanitizing for students and teachers before they enter school campuses and buses.
New rules and seating plans will be applied on school buses to keep students 6 feet (2 meters) apart. One option could be to seat one student per bench and skip every other row, the guidelines say. Choosing seats would not be allowed, students should be seated from the rear of the bus forward to prevent walking past each other.
The guidelines also rule out a number of social activities, such as field trips and school assemblies, and place a variety of restrictions on the act of sharing.
“Avoid sharing electronic devices, toys, books and other games,” the guidelines say as part of recommendations for schools to meet “high standards of cleanliness.” Schools are asked to disinfect high-touch surfaces at least daily, such as doorknobs, handrails, drinking fountains, playground equipment, sink handles and bathrooms.
The state Department of Public Health on Friday released its own 14-page guidance designed to help districts prepare, with many of the same recommendations.
The state said it plans to supply every school and child care center with no-touch thermometers, hand sanitizer, face shields for every teacher, cloth face coverings for staff and students, and tight-fitting N-95 masks for health care professionals in schools.
Educators say the new safety measures pose massive logistical and financial challenges, particularly at a time of shrinking budgets. Districts are facing the prospect of billions of dollars in budget cuts as the state scrambles to plug a deficit brought on by the virus.
The California Education Coalition, which includes the nine statewide K-12 public education associations, has urged Newsom and state legislators to reject the cuts. Teachers, superintendents, principals and others say they support the need to implement physical distancing at schools, which would require decreased class sizes and dramatically increased cleaning. But all of that will cost more money.
Schools have been closed since mid-March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, and developed distance-learning plans on the fly. The idea of classes resuming is a relief for both teachers and parents, but raises a host of new questions. Working parents will find it challenging to cope with extended distance learning plans. Teachers say they are wondering how they will keep students 6 feet (2 meter) apart.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Heather Peterson, a kindergarten teacher in Long Beach. Everything from lining up when the school bell rings to classroom seating, recess and lunchtime will have to be rethought. As will the types of toys students can play with.
“I’ve got Legos, and Tinker Toys and we do fun Friday free time, where the kids get to play with a partner. I don’t know how that’s going to look. Because everything a kid touches will have to be cleaned,” said Peterson, who wonders how she will monitor what each child touches.
Peterson has always tried to instill independence in her students — letting them go to the bathroom without asking, getting up for a pencil if they need it — but she assumes that will need to be curtailed.
“They’ll need to be at their designated spot for the day,” she said, and ask permission to leave their seat to avoid getting too close to others. On the bright side, by the time students return to school, the concept of staying apart won’t be new, Peterson said.
“It’s not ideal. I think it will be tricky to monitor at school. But when they return in September, at least they’ll have a lot of experience with social distancing,” Peterson said.