How to Reopen the Schools: Buy-in Across Levels

I’m tired of seeing posts that either protest or promote reopening of schools (both k-12 and college) without trying to explore solutions. I won’t offer advice on when different schools should open. But the fact is, whenever they do open (now, in 3 months, in a year, or ???), every institution, K-12 and higher ed, will look much differently than last February. The key to this possibly working lies in multi-level protocol and support to reduce risk, remain open, and still provide enriching instruction. Obviously, these approaches need to be adapted to specific circumstances.

Mask mandates in school and in the community. We need to both require and enforce the wearing of masks in crowded public spaces. Mandates with enforcement mean that even those who (somehow) “don’t believe in the virus” will have to don a face covering in order to enter stores, schools, and other places. Mask-wearing in the schools is a no-brainer to making this work. But the mask requirement at places of learning will be much more effective if it is the community norm.

Actually rapid testing widely available and free. Cost, access, and time cannot prohibit testing procedures that could make reopening otherwise work. Especially for college students, we need free, on-campus results that can be processed quickly while they wait. With this type of access, professors could build in exposure and testing into the class policies. Combined with contract tracing, this testing could drastically limit both transmission while unknowingly infected and the amount of class and work missed.

Risk-reducing actions built into student codes of conduct. For K-12 students, parents should sign pledges confirming that they will not partake in risk-increasing trips or activities without a voluntary quarantine and testing (weddings and other gatherings, air travel, etc.). Similarly, college students who opt for face-to-face instruction must adhere to a code of contact, in which participation in parties, concerts, or other events could result in disciplinary actions. Tough to enforce, yes, but at least it gives faculty and administration some basis to assign consequences.

Prosocial campaigns on the new protocol. This is a very confusing and hard time for everyone. To get students to comply with our new reality, easy-to-understand messages should be distributed across social media and email, campuses, and the community. These campaigns can inform students, parents, teachers, administrators, other employees, and visitors of what is expected on school grounds and in the classroom before school is in session, including

  • How to enter and exit the building (or each building) and special protocol for entering and exiting (i.e. reminding students not to hold doors for others).
  • Where masks are required and what areas are designated spaces for removing masks.
  • Where to get a back-up disposable mask if something happens to yours.
  • How and where to eat and drink at school.
  • Classroom procedures, like cleaning one’s desk.
  • Other new rules of the year (i.e. no bringing in birthday treats or policies about visitors).
  • What to do if you are feeling sick and/or if you think you’ve been exposed.
  • Procedures for class exposure, including the message delivery, testing, and incubation period.

These campaign messages also set the tone for the school year, helping to convey what is allowed and encouraged.

The importance of community buy-in. Regardless of your party affiliation or even perception of Covid risk, we need to unify to make the reopening of schools work. Simply put, if folks want schools to open (now, 6 months from now, or even later) and stay open, mask-wearing and other protocol has to be implemented and followed. So how can people help and not hinder this success? Let’s look at the different levels.

Parents. After you decide on schooling for your kids, it’s time to look for the good in the situation. No teacher/professor-bashing on social media or to their kids. This has been and will be hard for every person involved. How can I help? should be the only response. Have kids pick out cool masks and practice wearing them. Talk about how the year will be different, highlighting the positives at the same time. Make sure to tell your children that there will likely be unexpected “breaks” and Covid testing. Parents of college students should also be supportive, gently prompting their kids to communicate with instructors if something seems unclear. At the same time, dissuade your college student from attending risky activities.

Students. This new protocol is not optional. By now, anyone over the age of 3 is old enough to understand that we wear masks in public and why. If kids and (especially) college students don’t perceive themselves at risk, the threat of a shutdown should be enough rationale to abide by the rules.

Administrators. I don’t think I have to say be proactive or have back-up plans. Obviously, we do and many are already being rolled out. What I will say is that for teachers and faculty to do their best during initial opening, administration needs to be both flexible and mindful of the strain on educators, especially for those who are also caring for others.

Everyone else. Alumni, store owners, and other members of the community, for schools, and, well, society to safely reopen, it’s time to follow the rules and put aside self-centered behaviors. Play your part in helping the world put this pandemic in the past.

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