Keeping schools closed comes with massive, long-term individual and societal costs. Many children cannot effectively learn, grow, engage, socialize, be active, eat healthy food, or get support until schools reopen. Parents and caregivers cannot go back to work until children go back to school. Knowing that schools will reopen at some point, we set out to answer this question: What strategies should schools consider to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission?
Note that a risk reduction strategy is different from a goal of achieving zero cases. There is no such thing as “zero risk,” in anything we do, and certainly not during a pandemic.
However, scientific evidence indicates that risks to students and staff can be kept low if schools adhere to strict control measures and dynamically respond to potential outbreaks.
We recognize there are immense challenges. There is no perfect plan to reopen schools safely, only “less bad” options. There is no “one size fits all” strategy that works for every school. Schools have limited budgets and staff. Compliance will be imperfect. Learning will be different. There will be disruption. Schools may need to re-close unexpectedly depending on local conditions. No one knows with certainty what the fall will bring in terms of this pandemic.
Despite these challenges, the enormous individual and societal costs of keeping schools closed compels us, a team focused on Healthy Buildings and exposure and risk science, to present a range of control strategies that should be considered in discussions of school reopenings:
Following safe practices in classrooms.
Breathing clean air in the school building.
Building a culture of health, safety, and shared responsibility.
Moving between rooms and locations safely.
Enjoying modified activities.
Schools should adopt and adapt these recommendations to best fit their unique situation, depending on available personnel, resources, finances, school demographics, and building attributes. In addition, schools should frequently revisit their approach as the COVID-19 situation changes over time in each community. Although it is unlikely that any given school will be able to incorporate every recommendation, we want to emphasize that these strategies work together as part of a multi-layered plan to reduce exposure and limit transmission of COVID-19 in schools.