Returning to school this fall

In the face of a new pandemic, with more questions surrounding the situation than answers, schools around the U.S. switched to fully remote learning in the spring.

Parents were challenged to manage their kids’ education while grappling with their own work and a new set of restrictions to adhere to. The situation shined a spotlight on the inequalities in the nation’s digital divide.

So how do we return to school in the fall?

That is something that is still being debated. But it comes down to safety, there is a right way to reopen schools.  

“Florida has said its schools will open in the first weeks of August,” she says. “That’s three or four weeks from now. That’s crazy,” Emily Oster, author of two best-selling books that take a data-driven approach to parenting and pregnancy, said to Politico. “Based on where we are now, if Florida just opens the doors to schools and has everybody back in a normal way, just with a few masks, then a bunch of people are going to have Covid.”

For school systems struggling with the effects of deferred maintenance due to costs, the estimated $1.2 million needed for the average school to reopen safely, according to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is a massive hurdle. And worse yet, facility managers and decision makers have mere weeks to plan ahead before the new academic year begins.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently recommending a six-foot distance between every student desk, but the guideline ignores the frequent issue of overcrowded classrooms. Students will be able to go to school only one to three days a week, and it is not yet clear if schools will be able to ensure that siblings will attend on the same days.

Safety must be the priority

Students need the classroom for learning to be effective. Distance learning has been tough on students as well as parents, but it has been particularly catastrophic for disadvantaged students. As long as we recognize that students must return to schools in the fall, it must also be okay to identify what we are all comfortable with.

“Part of what’s hard about this is everybody’s managing this for the first time, and it is sort of like this macrocosm of other parenting things,” Oster said to Politico. “It’s like, ‘How could you make that choice? What are you, afraid of the coronavirus?’ Yeah! I’m afraid of the coronavirus! It should be OK to say, ‘Yes, I am uncomfortable. This does not work for my family.’ Just like some of us are going to say, ‘You know, I’ve thought about this, and I think the best thing for my family is for my kids to go back to school.’ I think we have to try to be nice to each other. That’s my message: Try to be nice to each other.”

When schools reopen, promoting handwashing, cleaning surfaces regularly, and identifying students and faculty who may be exhibiting symptoms of the virus is just one facet of what will need to happen. It’s also going to include making decisions that you are comfortable with and respecting others’ decisions.

As facilities managers, you can post signage as reminders, implement hands-free fixtures around the building, follow guidelines as they are updated, and you can listen to the concerns that students and faculty may have. It is clear that students need to return to school for their emotional and social wellbeing as well as to learn more than they would with distance learning. Create a plan as early as possible to get students back in school as safely.

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