Masked students and teachers, reconfigured classroom arrangements, a continued reliance on remote learning and suspended school gatherings — all part of the plan to reopen campuses this fall, the county’s top education official said Wednesday.
County Superintendent Nancy Magee said officials are putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive framework designed to help local districts start classes again in the safest fashion possible.
The guidelines for K-12 schools, expected to be published next week, are established around four pillars — health and hygiene protocol, face coverings requirements, physical distancing standards and gathering restrictions, said Magee.
For her part, Magee said educators and health officials are working hard to come up with a thoughtful set of strategies and measures while acknowledging amendments will be needed when unanticipated issues are encountered.
“Planning is a challenge. I believe we will get there. I don’t believe it will be an easy road,” she said. “I think we will have a two steps forward, one step backward scenario.”
Magee said students and staff will be expected to always wear face coverings while on campus, especially in common areas shared by large groups, as officials are focused on slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Once in the classroom, she suggested there could be some latitude among smaller student groups. And exceptions will be made for those with sensory complications or other issues which make wearing masks or face coverings challenging.
For those who forget their masks or damage them, Magee said schools will hold a stockpile of disposable coverings. But ultimately, she said hopefully the protective garb is considered a piece of school equipment as essential as a backpack.
“It is something we believe kids and staff can learn and build into their culture,” she said. “And simply by doing that one thing, we have really reduced the risk of spread in the school community.”
She added the San Mateo County Office of Education worked with its insurance group to purchase a stockpile of personal protective equipment which can be distributed to districts.
Ultimately, she suggested it will be up to school districts to acquire additional supplies, but she expected the initial purchase will be sufficient to help most districts make it through the first few months of classes.
Health and hygiene
Assuring everyone frequently washes and sanitizes their hands will be another high priority, said Magee, who emphasized the value of standardizing the practice as soon as students and employees arrive at the campus.
Furthermore, she suggested temperature scans and other health checks will become commonplace. And it is imperative anyone who may be feeling sick or experiencing coronavirus symptoms avoids coming to school, she said.
While the framework lays out the importance of healthy habits, Magee said districts will ultimately determine the best way to implement the measures.
“Each school will have to sort out in their local plan what times of the day and how that happens,” she said.
Noting it is not sustainable to establish hard and fast rules on classroom capacity or social distance standards, Magee said a key focus of the plan is establishing small, stable groups of students and limiting their exposure to other cohorts.
Such a goal could be accomplished through assigning restrooms to specific classes, reducing the amount of specialists coming into classrooms and cutting down on students rotating through campuses.
Rather than classes cycling by period through a campus, Magee said it could work better for students to stay in place while teachers circulate through the classroom. She also suggested calendars built around block schedules featuring fewer, longer classes would be preferable to those with more, shorter sessions.
“We want to reduce the mixing and movement of students around a campus in a day,” she said.
To that end, she acknowledged opportunities for educators to use their creativity in designing learning arrangements which could lead to a greater reliance on outdoor space rather than a confined learning environment.
“This is giving us an opportunity to think differently,” she said.
A continued reliance on remote learning will be a way to manage the amount of students and teachers on a campus at once too, she said. State Superintendent Tony Thurmond too has repeatedly pointed to a hybrid model of online teaching and classroom instruction will be carried into the new school year.
Magee noted online classes will be especially essential to reach students who are uncomfortable attending campuses until a vaccine is developed.
“That will further reduce the number of students on campus, but schools will have to provide some distance learning options,” said Magee, who noted such arrangements will be vital for teachers and staff members with underlying conditions preventing them from going to campus.
For the immediate term, crowds will not be allowed to form at sporting events, musical performances, school plays or for any other occasion, said Magee.
Ultimately, the education system will defer to guidance from the county health office on the size of crowds eventually allowed to gather. But in the foreseeable future, Magee said educators will plan to err on the side of caution.
“Even if the county were to open gatherings, the first two weeks of school we will limit them to zero to make sure we get off to a strong start,” she said.
Magee said there is plenty of work which will need to be done by local educators to assure the county’s guidelines can be applied at specific campuses.
“The real work is ahead with each individual school district working inside their community balancing all the needs and desires of the community members and trying to serve the students in the best way possible,” she said.
Such a task will require a great deal of tolerance and flexibility by all parts of a school community, said Magee, acknowledging the many varying opinions and needs of so many different groups.
“If the community can approach the reopening of school through the lens of compassion and patience it can really make a difference,” she said.
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