Summer is underway, which means fall and the upcoming school year are right around the corner. However, this change of seasons comes with challenges educators haven't experienced before. As states relax their shelter in place orders and companies around the world begin the process of transitioning their employees back to on-site work, the next great hurdle in adapting to life in a post-Coronavirus world is the classroom.
Similar to other responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, this re-imagining of K-12 educational environments is likely to happen in waves — waves that can't come fast enough for parents who are working from home.
Considering that COVID-19 is most easily spread through released respiratory droplets or from contaminated surfaces to hands and mouths, the more individuals you interact with, the higher the risk of further spreading COVID-19. Due to this reality, the classrooms of yesteryear will need to be reorganized and reimagined to keep all students and staff members safe.
Personal prevention practices are the place to start. The CDC encourages vigorous handwashing throughout the day, isolating yourself from your community if you feel sick, and attentive and regularly scheduled cleaning and disinfecting of all surfaces. Only once you've adopted these sanitary precautions and are monitoring your health, may you begin weighing the risk factors of returning to the classroom.
The lowest risk learning environment is a completely remote one. To virtually remove the risk of students and teachers spreading COVID-19 to one another, keep the classroom virtual. In this low-risk scenario, all classroom sessions, assignments, and school events will happen in virtual classrooms with all participants joining from their personal, secure remote location.
The pros of this choice are obvious: this option is the best way to halt the spread of disease. Unfortunately, it may not be a realistic choice for many families. Not all students have access to the technology required to fully participate in at-home learning, not all school districts have the funding required to provide the technology to their students, and going to school is a form of childcare for the majority of families.
To return to some semblance of the pre-Coronavirus classroom, there will be a risk of spreading the disease. A safe return to on-site learning will include small classroom sizes with distanced desks, and all members of the student body and staff wearing masks.
In this potentially risky scenario, all students in the classroom will use individual supplies, to avoid object sharing. Additionally, classes that choose to attend school in this fashion should turn to a blended or hybrid learning model if they can, to reduce the amount of in-person learning and therefore lower the risk of spreading the disease even further.
Although the return to on-site learning in any form poses a degree of risk, it is a more attainable option for many school districts and families. For those students without access to remote learning technology, returning to the classroom may be the only way they can continue their education. And for students with guardians returning to on-site work, going to school is the logical form of childcare.
To return to on-site learning while minimizing risk, here are some other tactics the CDC recommends school districts use to prioritize the health of their students and staff:
In school districts across the country, superintendents are weighing their options. For some, returning to school in the fall is not a choice, but a necessity to keep students receiving an education in a new hybrid learning model.
The Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner addressed these concerns in a video message saying, "For some — in particular younger students, English learners, students with learning differences and disabilities and those who were struggling before school facilities were closed, there may be a lifelong impact if they are not back in school sometime soon."
The bottom line is, it's up to each individual school district to create a return-to-school policy that prioritizes the health and safety of their students and staff while maintaining a productive educational environment. Just as organizations are learning how to return to work safely, with a flexible mindset and a bag full of disinfectant supplies, the education world can too.