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Inside an elementary school preparing for fall classes

Parents of America’s 56 million school children have two questions: When will schools reopen and how will they be safe?

Getting answers is critical for those families and also vital to clearing the way to fully restarting the $20 trillion US economy.

With a possible vaccine still months if not years away from widespread distribution, school districts across the country are scrambling to come up with guidelines for how to reopen in the era of Covid-19. They know they have until the beginning of the next school year to get it right.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says there is “very detailed planning around everything from class size to how many kids are going to be on the buses to how we clean the classrooms and the buildings, how we secure the environment.”

Those things and more are being addressed in the Houston Independent School District — the largest district in Texas, and 7th largest in the country, overseeing more than 210,000 public school children. Getting students back into the classroom as safely and as soon as possible has been the sole focus of interim superintendent Grenita Lathan since schools closed in March.

Lathan notes that it’s not the first crisis she’s had to steer through. “I want to remind people we’re still recovering from 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit, now we’re being hit by Covid-19,” she says. “I know how to get things done but this virus has stumped me, I will tell you the truth.”

She has assembled a reopening taskforce with district staff, health officials and others. “We’ve invited parents that have a medical background to be a part of that committee,” she says. “And we’re looking at all aspects of not only our transport, our buses, but our classrooms, our facilities, the interaction of when a visitor, mainly a parent, comes into the front office of a school.”

Like other school districts, Houston is prepared for a blended model, where some students are on campus and others are learning from home virtually.

Lathan showed CNN inside Harvard Elementary school, the city’s oldest and one of its most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse — and, coincidentally, my former school — to demonstrate what parents and students can expect when doors eventually reopen.

Greeting them will be a school official and nurse, with thermometers for a mandatory temperature check. Next, there is a carefully marked path to the PPE station, with hand sanitizer and where each student is given their own face mask that must be worn throughout the day.

This, Lathan says, will be one of the most challenging aspects of the new era. “One of the biggest issues that we possibly will encounter, especially with elementary students, is ensuring that they keep their mask on if masks are required to be worn,” she says. “How do we do that throughout the school day? Because you know, children, that’s hard. It’s hard for us as an adult.”

In-person class sizes will be significantly smaller — perhaps 12 students spaced out 1 or 2 to a table with the rest of the students online and tapping in to the classroom.

Cafeterias will be less crowded, those familiar group tables used by just a few students at a time as more meals are served in the classroom. And those meals are likely to be prepackaged, at least at the start, Lathan said.

Hallway traffic will be regulated and it will be the teachers transitioning from class to class when the bell rings.

And then there is the question of recess — a sacred time for all students.

“We will have a reduced number of students out on the playground at a certain time,” Lathan says. “We’ll need to make sure that we’re cleaning all of our playground equipment throughout the day.”

Similar blueprints are being modeled in other large school districts, including for the 2 million students in Los Angeles. The LA County Office of Education guidelines include staggered days, one-way halls and solo play.

It’s not just schools that are being converted. Approximately 480,000 school buses are used to transport more than 25 million students each day nationwide. Houston transports between 45,000 and 60,000 students over 600 square miles daily.

Lathan points out hand sanitizers and labeled seats showing where students would be spaced out and seated as they board. There’s consideration for an additional staff member assigned to each bus, to make sure students remain socially distant.

Experts believe the logistics, even at a national scale, are doable. But how to finance them is an even bigger hurdle. Congress allocated a portion of its initial $2 trillion stimulus package in March to K-12 schools. Congressional Democrats proposed an additional $3 trillion package earlier this month which included $90 billion for the Department of Education to distribute among states. That bill was rejected in the Senate.

Casserly, of the Council of the Great City Schools that brings urban public school districts together to improve education, says the initial funding was helpful, but more is needed, and soon.

“On the horizon, costs are much, much larger,” he says. “Many of our school districts are projecting shortfalls of any place between 15% and 25%. It provides the possibility of a perfect storm financially that is going to be difficult to stand without substantial financial support.”

He adds, “You can’t control a pandemic, but you can control the response to one.”

Casserly says the priority for schools nationwide is to open their doors again to the most vulnerable students.

“We’re most worried about students who are economically disadvantaged, students who are English language learners, students with disabilities, students who don’t have internet at home,” he says. “In addition, we’ve got a fair number of homeless students. We’ll have to meet their needs as well as families that are going through a lot of distress at the moment.”

Lathan in Houston agrees her priority is reopening for the neediest students, including those with special educational needs, even as others continue online learning for a time. She and her team are also concerned about some 10,000 students they have not been able to make contact with.

She knows many students and parents are desperate for Harvard Elementary to reopen.

“Be patient,” is her message to them. “Allow us an opportunity to finalize our plan, to ensure students can be on the playground and be in the classroom, in the cafeteria and on our buses. Be patient with us.”

Article Topic Follows: US & World

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