Maximizing the amount of safe in-person learning for the upcoming school year was among the chief goals the Colorado Department of Education conveyed Monday during an online meeting about reopening K-12 schools in the age of the novel coronavirus.
The development of social-emotional skills and the ability of the poorest students to get nutritious meals are among the attributes of in-person learning lost or severely degraded when classrooms move online, said Dr. Brian Erly, medical epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Erly cited the American Academy of Pediatrics finding that children 10 and younger are less likely to be infected by COVID-19, less likely to exhibit severe symptoms and less likely to transmit the virus.
In Sweden, which never closed its schools for children 5 to 15 years of age, rates of infection for children were lower than in its neighbor Finland, which did close its schools.
Additionally, Erly said rates of infections among teachers were similar in Sweden and in Finland.
While Sweden’s social, economic, political, cultural, health and climate are different than Colorado’s, Erly said, “it’s an important example to examine as we look to reopen schools.”
Opening schools effectively and safely to in-person learning and keeping them open, he said, would be successful only if the districts across the state practiced a layered defense to keep COVID-19 at bay. Among the practices CDE recommends as crucial included:
Splitting groups of children into cohorts, small learning groups, that would stay together throughout the day to minimize the daily contacts students have with others. Ideally, students would stay in the same classroom and teachers would move from room to room to minimize personal contacts in passing periods.Maintaining at least a 3-foot social distance in classrooms and, even better, a 6-foot distance where possible.Encouraging people who feel sick or are suffering symptoms of the pathogen to stay home.Maximizing the ventilation capacities and ensuring systems are operating at their peak.Sanitizing diligently, especially on high-contact surfaces.Requiring and encouraging the use of face coverings. The CDE recommends all children 11 years and older to wear face coverings, and children 10 and younger are strongly encouraged to wear them. Recommendations also suggest districts require adults to wear masks unless they are medically unable to wear them.CDE Commissioner Katy Anthes said recommendations offered by the CDE are meant to help local districts develop processes and procedures that are right for them. Each district, she said, should use guidance from the state to inform them as they tweak their own process for how to handle school reopenings based on local conditions.
“We’re going to be driven by what happens in local environments, what’s happening at the local level. We want to provide good information for solid decision-making in each district. The decisions made might look very different based on local conditions,” Anthes said.
One of the strengths of having local control of schools, Erly said, is that individual districts from superintendents to teachers to support staff know their local conditions, the condition of their buildings and their local needs better than officials in Denver.
“CDE wants to provide a tool kit of strategies individual districts can use to meet their goals,” he said.
Anthes added that the state and local districts are going to have to be flexible and willing to adapt as more is learned about the pathogen and as local epidemiological conditions change.
“We’re going to have to evaluate as we learn. We are going to have to be nimble in the days ahead,” she said.