These mitigation efforts depend on a deep level of trust and communication that exists between families and the school. But that doesn’t mean it has been easy to get to this moment, or that it wasn’t without its share of concern and worry.
Kim spoke to this truth so well in her welcome back letter to staff, “I can imagine that being away from school and our hybrid rhythm brings up anxious feelings in anticipation of being together.” I know the feeling was the same for many of our families after several weeks away from school and COVID numbers in the state growing as a result of the holidays. It took a lot of trust on behalf of staff, school leadership and families to open our doors wide come Monday morning. All of this, unfortunately, is set to a backdrop of many school districts that have never opened for in-person learning, with the pandemic having reinforced and expanded the deep inequalities of American society and the education system. Since it has been on all of our minds this winter, I thought I would share some of what I have been reading lately regarding COVID-19 and school reopenings- a new report and guidance out of Harvard named The Path to Zero.
While there are a lot of news stories out there about school reopenings, I found this published guidance from a multi-disciplinary group of experts from Harvard, Brown, BU and Tufts to be helpful and balanced in its approach. I also think there is a lot to celebrate in this report for how Fayerweather has managed its opening as a greater community thus far.
Each month that passes during this pandemic means that experts learn more and more about how the virus acts, what is safe/unsafe, what works/what doesn’t etc. The Path to Zero was an updated set of guidance issued by public health and education experts based on what we now understand about schools and COVID-19. The new emphasis of the report is on infection control and mitigation efforts schools can use to keep spreading within the school setting to zero or near zero. Here is the good news- Fayerweather has been on top of these strategies for quite some time. The guidance breaks down infection control measures into three categories- individual, environmental and systemic. “Individual controls are those that every individual must be responsible for enacting for the good of self and others. Environmental controls are those that can be built into the physical environment. Systemic controls are those that require changes in organizational practice and process” (Path to Zero 7). If you look at the accompanying chart, Fayerweather has implemented policies that deal with all relevant categories in each of the three categories. That helped me breathe a sigh of relief. While there is no way to reduce risk to zero, there were other really encouraging findings from these public health experts that are reassuring. For one, Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health noted, “. . . we learned more about the virus and how to stop infections. And where schools opened up again with mitigation measures in place, we saw no evidence that schools drive significant community spread. With the right controls in place, schools can even maintain lower infection rates than the community” (Path to Zero 1). When you balance the very low risk posed to children and the community with the benefits cited in the report that come from in-person learning, it makes all our mitigation efforts feel worth it. The report noted that infections that have been reported at schools have almost always come from outside the school (community/family spread) vs. in-school transmission. In fact, “We are unaware of any outbreaks in the U.S. that were caused by in-school transmission in schools where infection controls have been in place
” (Path to Zero 4).
In addition to this finding, there were reassuring findings for teacher safety from studies out of the UK thus far. Thomas Tsai, Assistant Professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health described, “Like other working adults, infections among teachers are largely arising from community-level transmission as opposed to from places of work. From the standpoint of severe COVID-19, where-- and whether-- you teach may matter less than where you live” (Path to Zero 1). The paper goes on to explain that, “Teachers face no greater risk than other comparatively low-risk front-line workers such as grocery stores clerks or retail workers- and far less than meatpackers and healthcare aides/workers, for instance” (Path to Zero 5).
All of this new understanding and data has led to perhaps the most significant finding of the group, which involves a shift in focus: “The prior guidance had recommended using community spread metrics as a key factor in assessing mitigation measures and school openings or closures. Now, community spread metrics serve as important pieces of information, but the recommendation is that schools focus on rates of in-school transmission and metrics for the quality of infection control. . .
We can now recommend that schools be open even at the very high levels of spread we are now seeing, provided they strictly implement strategies of infection control” (Path to Zero 1). That doesn’t mean that there will never be a case in which Fayerweather has to move to Scenario 3, all remote learning, but our surveillance testing mitigation effort will help us know if that time comes (per the report guidance).
I want to end this article with a note of deep appreciation for this whole community- staff, administration and families. Part of the article focused on how important trust was in implementing these mitigation strategies successfully and keeping in-person learning going. Without trust between school leadership and staff, between school leadership and families, the report let us know, there is no successful infection control strategy that can work. I have felt the trust, vigilance and transparency in our school community that has allowed us to move forward with confidence and trust in one another. Thank you!
Infection Control Measures
- Stay home when sick
- Hand hygiene
- Bathroom hygiene, including de-densification of bathroom use if ventilation falls short of standard code requirements
- Masking, including continuous masking while speaking
- Self – Distancing in hallways; classrooms; shared spaces
- Robust guidance for out of school socializing
- Ventilation/Filtration (with masking): > 4 to >6 ACH
- Clear rules for PPE use, space movement, airflow control, and contaminated zones
- Effective and succinct communication about rules and protocols
- Outdoor Classrooms
- School-level Infection Control Teams
- Infection control training
- Contact tracing
- Isolation and Quarantine Protocols
- Classrooms Pods, where feasible (mainly in lower grades)
- Programming changes (to athletics and other congregate co-curricular activities)
- De-densification through optional remote only
- Cafeteria and dining protocols
- Contact surfaces hygiene
- Mandated Distancing in hallways, classrooms; shared spaces
- Protocols for interactions among adult educators and staff.
- Mental health support and other support for those carrying out an activity deemed an essential function. Protocol for transportation – ex. Distancing/ventilation/masking on school buses
- Attention to building a culture of adherence to guidance among kids and families