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For some schools, following safety guidelines will be a challenge.GABI BUCATARU/Stocksy
  • A childhood medicine specialist said reopening schools could be successful if ventilation systems are upgraded and physical distancing among children is guaranteed.
  • Parents also have a big role to play in ensuring that the transition to in-person learning is successful, the specialist added.
  • An air quality expert said one of the biggest challenges that schools might face is the age of the buildings.

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For many schools around the country, it’s been one of the toughest decisions during the pandemic: reopen school buildings or keep them shuttered.

Now, with President Joe Biden’s encouragement, many schools are preparing for in-person learning later this spring and in the fall.

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) weighed in, saying that schools could reopen safely as long as several key mitigation strategies are in place.

These strategies include physical distancing and proper mask use by students, teachers, and staff.

The CDC’s recommendation has been embraced in many quarters, including by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, as well as by several experts, school administrators, and professionals with expertise in building engineering.

But many schools face an uphill battle in making sure they can reopen while adhering to safety measures.

Dr. Kunjana Mavunda, a Miami-based pediatric pulmonologist and childhood medicine specialist, said reopening buildings could be successful if schools are diligent about upgrading ventilation systems, frequently changing air-conditioning filters, and ensuring physical distance between children.

Sanitizers and wipes should be available everywhere in the building, she said, including the school and classroom entrances.

Installing plexiglass between teachers and students will be helpful as well.

Temperature checks should also be considered. Children should be taught not to share things, including drinks and pencils.

School buses need to be frequently cleaned and not overcrowded.

At the end of day, schools should deep clean each classroom, added Mavunda, who is also the former medical director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Health and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Parents also have a big role to play in ensuring that the transition to in-person learning is successful, she said.

“The parents’ responsibility should be to teach them to wear the masks that fit well,” Mavunda said. “When parents drop children off, they should enter the school only if absolutely needed. Parents need to adhere to school rules, and schools should know the prevalence of COVID in their neighborhood.”

In addition, Mavunda said parents should ensure that their children’s regular vaccinations are up to date, particularly for vaccines that fight respiratory diseases such as influenza.

These vaccines boost the immune system, she said. Keeping up with other vaccines like Tdap and MMR could help too.

Teachers and administrators should also get vaccinated for COVID-19 when possible and stay up to date on their regular vaccinations as well. People in their 50s and 60s may have lost their immunity to measles, she added.

Joe Heaney, a mechanical engineer and air quality expert who works with organizations and businesses to upgrade their air quality systems across the New York City metro area, said one of the biggest challenges that schools might face is the age of the buildings.

This is particularly true for public schools, many of which are decades old, he said.

“The low-hanging fruit is increasing ventilation,” said Heaney, who is also president of Lotus Biosecurity, a firm that uses medical experts and HVAC service providers to provide antiviral safety measures for employees and patrons of restaurants and small businesses.

HVAC systems are designed to have 2 to 4 air changes per hour, he said. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said the goal is six air changes per hour.

“Schools should ensure that fresh air is introduced into the system. Some might just provide comfort cooling instead of introducing new air,” he said. “There are some requirements that the system introduce 20 percent new air per hour. If there is an HVAC unit that is providing cooling, you want to see what the fresh air rate is and increase that.”

Tara Valoczki, elementary principal at Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a cost-free, private, co-residential school and home for children from lower-income households across the country, said that when her school reopened last August, she and her team employed numerous mitigation strategies.

These included assigning entry and exit doors for students and staff, staggering arrival and dismissal times to decrease the number of people in hallways, determining class sizes based on the square footage of the classroom, spacing students’ desks at least 6 feet apart, and providing students with their own materials to minimize sharing.

Despite the challenge of getting used to a limited environment in the beginning, Valoczki said students, faculty, and staff have adjusted quite well.

“Honestly, our staff has shared over and over that this has been a great year with student behavior, academic growth, and social and emotional well-being due to the mitigation strategies changing our environment,” she said.

But in addition to upgrading ventilation systems and strengthening public health measures, it’s just as important to keep an eye on the emotional well-being of students.

“Students who are under-resourced come from a background where they may have experienced emotional trauma and as a result suffer from a form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Tyrone Burton, a former principal, education leadership development consultant, and author of “The Reframing of American Education: A Framework for Understanding American Education Post-COVID 19.

“In every school, there needs to be a cadre of support people in place, including the principal, assistant principal, nurse, social worker, psychologist, behavioral interventionist, and instruction specialist for math and ELA (English Language Arts),” he said.

“If not, the (achievement) gap would be widened,” Burton said.