Advocate Plan To Reopen Schools: School Buildings and Occupants Can Speed or Slow the Spread of COVID-19

Date: Jul 09 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Media Relations 

Plan details an extensive approach to safely reopening schools such as providing test screenings, personal protective equipment for students and staff, involvement from state and local governments, and more.

As pressure mounts for schools to reopen this fall, awareness is growing of the need for specific plans on how schools will not just open, but stay open, by protecting the health of children and their families, teachers, administrators and school staff.  By their nature, schools are an environment conducive to the spread of illnesses, including COVID-19. They are densely occupied for long periods and have a well-documented history of deferred maintenance which has resulted in well-known problems with ventilation and indoor air and plumbing, and challenges in cleaning.

The virus is not going away. Moreover, the poorest communities hardest hit by COVID-19 also send their children to the poorest schools in the worst condition, making this a supremely challenging health and education equity and rights problem with no quick solution.

Over 60 national public health and healthy school leaders joined the Coalition for Healthier Schools today to release a National Call to Action for state health agencies to provide an authoritative School Infection Prevention and Control Plan to all schools to adopt. The current piecemeal approach to no-plan-just-open, will clearly deepen the disparities and sow more confusion at a time when parents and schools need to rely on a stable, predictable course of connected actions. 

The Plan covers state roles and local roles, notes federal and state regulations in place, then outlines considerations in reopening buildings that have been closed for weeks if not months, maintaining and updating ventilation and cleaning protocols, and then discusses options for scheduling occupancy, including screening for illnesses, masks and PPE, and services for children with health and learning issues. 

The scope of the problems cannot be understated. On any one school day, about 20% of the US population is in a school. Schools are where children spend the most time, other than home — often 30-40 hours per week. Like adults, children may shed and transmit the coronavirus, yet show no symptoms. Except for masks, there is no PPE for children, who breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults; further, children cannot identify or protect themselves from risks. There are more than 56 million children in over 125,000 public and private school buildings nationwide. Of the 50 million in public schools, nearly 40% do not have Internet use at home, 29 million receive subsidized school meals, and about a quarter have chronic health conditions. Twenty percent of the teaching staff is age 55 or older, a high-risk category for COVID-19. 

Schools can either slow the spread of the virus or speed it up. If they are to reduce, rather than increase, the risk of new COVID-19 outbreaks and repeated closures, schools will need to adopt districtwide, facility-level written school infection prevention and control plans to address the details of cleaning, disinfecting, sanitation, indoor air, and environmental quality, as well as occupancy rate.

School Infection Prevention and Control Plans. This report is the national call to action for the public health community—for state, tribal and big city public health agencies — to produce guidance in the form of an authoritative School Infection Prevention and Control Plan that local schools can adopt as they prepare for reopening. These authoritative state-level plans should include detailed recommendations on specific steps that schools should follow and options for other issues.

Led by Healthy Schools Network and the New Jersey Work Environment Council, the Coalition worked to produce a nationally unique plan of action that begins by addressing both student and employees health and safety. This Call to Action offers elected and appointed officials, families and teachers guideposts to increase the chances for safe re-openings. History has seen the premature reopening of schools at the expense of children’s health as communities, families and political leaders fight to regain normalcy.

“As we prepare to reopen schools, we must ensure that schools remain centers of safety as well as beacons for education,” said Claire Barnett, executive director of the New York-based Healthy Schools Network. “For communities like some in the Bronx, that are still experiencing significant transmission rates, it is critical that the state provide clear guidelines and make investments to help schools prepare to reopen. School buildings in these communities are often aging and lack fresh air. The state must spell out standards for ventilation, appropriate spaces for learning, and detailed protocols for cleaning and disinfection. Otherwise, we risk reopening to the possible detriment of already vulnerable communities.”

Today’s virtual news conference included presentations by school and public health leaders and experts. The recorded news conference presentation is available here. The Pandemic v. Schools report is here.

Beyond state and local funds, also mentioned during the news conference were potential sources of federal funding to assist with school facilities: the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2020 and US EPA’s Healthy Schools Programs.

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The American Public Health Association champions the health of all people and all communities. We are the only organization that combines a nearly 150-year perspective, a broad-based member community and the ability to influence federal policy to improve the public’s health. Learn more at www.apha.org.