CLEVELAND — The anxiety and excitement of a new school year have morphed into concern and caution. The COVID-19 pandemic has school districts all across Northeast Ohio taking an in-depth and all-encompassing look at their policies, programs and procedures as the first day of school approaches. Those districts aren't doing it alone, however, as University Hospitals' Healthy Restart team has compiled an easy to understand, practical playbook that districts can use as a syllabus for the 2020-2021 school year.
Released last week, the Healthy Restart Playbook for reopening schools is modeled after a similar playbook that UH's Healthy Restart team put together for businesses that reopened in May. Early on in the playbook, experts noted how complicated it will be to re-open schools during a pandemic and, therefore, it is also difficult to provide guidance for a virus that researchers are still learning about.
"This is not a one size fits all approach but also our approach has to be flexible, depending upon what happens to the number of cases in a community, depending on these schools' ability to adhere to the cleaning guidelines and social distancing guidelines," said Dr. Joan Zoltanski, the leader of the Healthy Restart team. "That's what we're concerned about—there is not a one size fits all. You really have to look at this school by school but also student by student."
To help districts formulate their plans, members of the Healthy Restart team toured several elementary, middle and high schools in districts all over Northeast Ohio, including Chagrin Falls and CMSD.
Dr. Robert Hunt, the superintendent of Chagrin Falls Schools, said his district and others like it will likely operate under one or a combination of three different models: all in-person instruction, all virtual instruction or a hybrid of the two. The operating model may also differ school by school given the litany of variables that educators and health experts will have to contend with.
"It's difficult. The other piece is that people want to compare what one district is doing to another when you can't do that. Everybody's facilities look different. Their communities are different and the expectations of the community are different. It's really not fair to compare," Dr. Hunt said. "I think all of us are working really hard to engage our community in a conversation so, number one, they understand the complexity of the problem and situation. Then, number two, trying to get to a point that best meets the desires and educational needs of your community. One of the better things we did early on rather than starting to talk about models, we talked about what are our core beliefs? ... Obviously safety and staff was one of the first things that we came up with."
That guiding principal is also a core tenant of CMSD's approach, said Karen Thompson, the chief of staff for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The Healthy Restart team toured Garfield School and John Marshall High School, both on the city's West Side.
"We could experience the life of a student and what they would experience," Thompson said. "I can't underscore the importance of having that physical walking of the building. It lifted so many things that I know that aren't in your normal world and we wouldn't have thought about. Now we're feeling much more prepared in preparing our schools."
The site surveys of the school buildings may have been just as valuable as the playbook itself, officials said. By having UH's experts tour the facilities, administrators were able to ask very specific questions on a multitude of issues, including ingress and egress in school hallways, how to place and space desks in a classroom and how to handle lunch time, recess and the end of the school day.
Dr. Hunt said it is even more vital than ever for districts, including his own, to adequately and consistently communicate with students and their families.
"I think there is a misconception that kids do not get sick from this. To hear their perspective on that was very, very insightful and helpful," Dr. Hunt said. "Honestly, it puts a little more weight on the decisions you make. Understanding that gravity of what we're dealing with not only student to student but also your adults and staff as well. I think it's important for parents and communities to understand that there are so many factors that go into what that final reopening decision is. They have to entrust that the administrators, teachers, staff and the engagement that is happening in the community leads to the best possible place. Whatever that land is it's going to make some people angry and some people uncomfortable. You just have to work through that."
Older school buildings also pose unique challenges in themselves, Dr. Zoltanski said, because newer buildings with state-of-the-art HVAC systems have enhanced filtering capabilities.
"We stressed to them about really thinking locally. Looking at their county and that's one big part of it but also a really big piece of it is what are their resources?" Dr. Zoltanski said. "We stressed to them about really thinking locally, looking at their county."
There are also concerns that most people who don't work in education might not immediately consider, including how to properly but safety teach children who are in the early stages of learning speech fundamentals.
"It's important to see how [the kids] are forming the words and it's important for them to see the adult. There will be times where students will wear a shield so that they can engage in learning in a different way but also have that mask back on afterward," Thompson said. "We are all getting messages from many many different areas and so the more common language that we can have, the higher engagement and understanding that we have by our staff and our families by our scholars."
According to the playbook, administrators and educators need to be very vigilant amount monitoring infections. Communication is also paramount, especially in the event that a particular school will need to make changes because of a positive case. The playbook also recommends that school leaders open windows whenever possible in order to get fresh air into classrooms that don't have central air systems.
Additionally, the playbook recommends that parents fill their child's water bottle before going to school because it is recommended that water fountains be turned off. Temperature checks may be necessary at the start of the school day and desks are recommended to be placed six feet apart, the playbook recommends. In the hallways, the playbook advises teachers and staff to stagger locker assignments in order to promote social distancing. At lunch time, students should be seated in a checkerboard type of arrangement.
"The reality is that [districts] have different resources. They have different spaces and they have different layouts," Dr. Zoltanski said. "Families at home have different resources and we want to think about our most vulnerable student, our most vulnerable family and our most vulnerable teacher."
Above all else, however, the playbook preaches flexibility. For CMSD, that elasticity has already been tested. Earlier this month, a positive case was reported at one one of the district's 26 feeding sites that have been operating throughout the summer. Instead of closing the site and redirecting families to a different site, the district opted to still have families go to the original site but then transport them to a different one. This was done in an effort to eliminate any possible disruption in services, Thompson said.
That flexibility will be a hallmark of the 2020-2021 school year as it is entirely possible that one of CSMD's educators tests positive for the virus.
"We have one plan but then there has to be an adaptability to each site," Thompson said. "We have over 6,900 employees in the district. You can expect within that number of individuals there is going to be individuals that fall under high risk. We'll work with them."
You can view the schools Healthy Restart Playbook by clicking this link.