Health officials outline five issues for school openings
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Guidelines released by the Kentucky Department for Public Health joined and the Kentucky Department of Education illustrate just how difficult it may be for schools to open and operate this fall.
The two groups met Monday for the Education Continuation Task Force meeting to provide five aspects for districts to consider as they plan for reopening schools in the fall.
For the 2020-2021 school year, DPH asked districts leaders to consider:
- Social distancing;
- Cloth face coverings;
- Screening and temperature checks;
- Hand and surface hygiene; and
- Contact tracing.
These aspects will be included in DPH’s Healthy at School document, which will be released at a later date.
“There is no easy path for this, unfortunately,” said DPH Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack. “We want you to know that we share your frustration and will work with you as much as possible to find innovative ideas on how we can address this.”
Stack told the task force that there is no vaccine, cure or effective treatment for COVID-19 as of June 15. Therefore, it is critical for districts to implement these five concepts to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus within their local communities.
According to DPH, up to 40% – or more – of the individuals who contract COVID-19 have no symptoms. These infected individuals will continue to spread the infection to others without knowing they have the virus. DPH recommends maintaining 6 feet of distance when possible.
Stack understands that this will be difficult to enforce, particularly with young children, but said it is an essential tool to use to mitigate the spread of the virus.
During the June 2 Special Superintendents’ Webcast, superintendents had asked DPH about the possibility of schools utilizing plexiglass as a barrier between students in the classroom. At the time, DPH Deputy Commissioner Dr. Connie White said she would have to do more research, but cited that cleaning the plexiglass could be an issue.
Martin Monson, interim principal at the Kentucky School for the Blind, raised the question again during the June 15 task force meeting and the DPH officials said they do not recommend using plexiglass in the classroom.
“My opinion would be that is not a pragmatic approach,” said Stack. “You simply can’t put everybody in a fishbowl in your classroom. I don’t think that that is realistic. I think you’re better off to try and have some distance – the 6 feet – if at all possible, between everybody.”
White added that it would be difficult to ensure that the plexiglass is cleaned thoroughly after each student sits at their desk and said there are other safety concerns, particularly with the barriers falling and potentially injuring a student.
DPH says that social distancing does not need to be enforced on school buses if students are wearing masks, are practicing proper hand hygiene and have had their temperature and symptoms checked.
Cloth Face Coverings
DPH recommends that schools require both faculty and students to wear masks when in the school building and when social distancing is not possible.
Since the coronavirus spreads by respiratory droplets, covering the nose and mouth is the way a person can prevent spreading the virus if they are not 6 feet away from others, according to DPH.
“If you have a single thing you can do to greatly reduce the risk of infection, it is to cover your face,” said Stack.
Stack added that cloth face coverings provide the barrier needed to diminish the spread of the virus and noted that surgical masks and N95 masks are not needed in schools except for certain nursing activities.
Nancy Hutchinson, chief executive officer of the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation, asked DPH officials if districts should consider masks a “non-negotiable” for the 2020-2021 school year.
“I wouldn’t use the word non-negotiable. Though I would say that it’s really essential whenever possible,” said Stack. “Obviously there are situations where it cannot happen. You can’t have kids running around a soccer field in 85-degree heat wearing a mask.
“There are times you just cannot do it and in those cases, you should not do it. You should not endanger someone to wear a mask. But, whenever possible, people should wear a mask.”
Several task force members suggested that adults within the school should “be an example” for students by wearing their masks during the day in the hopes that students will follow their lead.
State Sen. Reggie Thomas (Fayette) is a recent addition to the Education Continuation Task Force, along with State Rep. Tina Bojanowski (Louisville), State Rep. Regina Huff (chair of the House Education Committee) and State Sen. Max Wise (chair of the Senate Education Committee).
Thomas recommended that districts consider being more strict on faculty than students when it comes to wearing masks.
“I understand the flexibility in the requirement of masks for children. I think that will be practical and reasonable,” he said. “But I think we ought to have more stringent standards for wearing masks for faculty and staff because they are adults, they understand the risks and they can be held to a higher standard than children.”
Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman added that it is important for the adults in the school to be positive role models for their students.
“One of the things that we have to make sure we always do as educators is never ask more of our students than we’re willing to give,” she said.
Screening and Temperature Checks
Although many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, more than 60% do have symptoms, according to DPH.
Stack said districts could have families screen for symptoms at home before entering school property.
“The key thing is, to try and come up with a way for the education community to screen people for symptoms of infection and also for fever,” said Stack. “If you find people with those things and have them stay outside of the school community, you will dramatically reduce the risk of spreading infection into the school.”
Stack said that when developing plans for reopening other sectors of the economy, DPH has required an employee’s temperature to be checked at least once every 24 hours.
He added that while there may be multiple ways to screen for symptoms, it may be best for them to be checked at home before students and staff head to school.
Hand and Surface Hygiene
DPH recommends frequent hand cleaning and sanitizing to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
“This is an infection overwhelmingly spread by the droplets going directly from one person to another, but not exclusively that,” explained Stack. “Our hands are the most common device that we use to touch our nose, our eyes and our face. … The single most important thing is to wash your hands a lot.”
Frequently cleaning of high-contact surfaces contaminated by respiratory droplets also is an important step to reduce transmission of the virus. These surfaces include doorknobs, desks and telephones.
In a May 21 call with Kentucky’s 172 superintendents, Gov. Andy Beshear spoke of the importance of accurate and efficient contact tracing as a way to manage the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
The contact tracing program is an online tracking system that allows public health workers to record individual information of Kentuckians who have been exposed to COVID-19, conduct outreach and monitor wellness.
According to DPH, public health has used contact tracing for decades to identify individuals with a communicable illness, isolate them and quarantine others with high-risk exposure to the infected person to prevent disease spread.
DPH officials also recommend that when planning to prevent exposure of students and staff to COVID-19, districts should include preparing to assist contact tracers with their investigations.
“Contact tracing is important and we need your active participation in that,” said Stack. “It will be difficult because in the United States of America, talking to people on the phone about infection or illness is not something we routinely do. Yet, this is what we have to do to try to allow us to get back to normal activities.”
Interim Education Commissioner Kevin C. Brown, acknowledging that this next semester will be difficult, urged the education community to meet the public health experts halfway with the Healthy at School guidance since DPH has been both practical and flexible in response to feedback from KDE and districts.
“There will be difficult tasks ahead of us from the school community to implement some of these things, but every other school district in the country is trying to do the same thing,” said Brown. “We are going to be doing things that we have never been asked to do before. I’m confident we can do them.”