7 students in a class? Not practical, school operations officials say

Thermal cameras that take students’ and staff members’ temperatures as they enter a school, flooring with one-way directions and “self-cleaning” windows that use UV light to clean the air inside a room are among the products school operations officials are considering as they begin preparing for schools to re-open — whenever that is. 

Some operations and plant managers recognize the coronavirus has changed the way they maintain buildings.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re never going to be able to do things the way we used to,” said Keith Watkins, director of facilities for the City School District of New Rochelle — once a hot spot for the virus. 

Several months ago, Watkins — also president of the National School Plant Management Association — said he happened to be looking at cleaning products that leave an antimicrobial coating on surfaces and promise to kill and prevent bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms from returning for up to 90 days. 

Such precautions, he said, will be needed because it’s not practical to clean and disinfect classrooms and surfaces every time a student sneezes or coughs.

An example of a thermal camera set up on a tripod in an entryway.

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In the 116,000-student Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, Texas, Chief Financial Officer Karen Smith has been calculating the potential costs of cleaning classrooms after every period. — roughly $21,000 per day. Other non-instructional costs piling up include plexiglass barriers for school nutrition staff, receptionists and other offices, such as human resources, that see a lot of traffic. 

Watkins said he’s also been researching high-efficiency filters for HVAC systems that can trap and keep particles, such as bacteria and viruses, from being released into the air. These are ways, he said, of “getting ahead of [infection] instead of chasing it.”

But some scenarios he’s heard don’t sound realistic, he said.

“To think you’re going to keep students six feet apart in a classroom is ridiculous,” he said, adding such a requirement would reduce a typical classroom to seven students. “Who is going to supervise that? 

In New Jersey, Keith Gourlay, executive director of the state’s School Buildings and Grounds Association, said one idea being recommended is to add trailers to school campuses to increase the number of classroom spaces. “Where do they think these trailers are going to come from?” he asked.

Smith added using portable classrooms to spread out students would only add to personnel costs at a time when budget cuts are expected.

While some countries are already mandating older students wear masks to school, Gourlay is also skeptical about such rules in the U.S. “To think we’re going to make kids wear masks is a joke,” he said.

Smith, meanwhile, has been calculating the potential costs of masks and gloves if those requirements are in place. “It would be in the millions,” she said, adding that other expenses related to operations could include higher energy costs if the school day is extended to help students make up for missed learning. 

Desks in the same direction 

In recent years, schools have also been moving toward more open and flexible classroom designs intended to encourage collaboration among students. That’s not a good idea during a pandemic, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. 

“Turn desks to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other) to reduce transmission caused from virus-containing droplets (e.g., from talking, coughing, sneezing),” according to guidelines from the agency.

The document also recommends students wash their hands when they enter and leave a classroom, and that specialists, such as art and music teachers, rotate to classrooms instead of students moving in and out of a classroom multiple times a day.

Watkins said district officials are already discussing split sessions in the fall, with students either alternating days between in-person and online learning or having morning and afternoon groups. And playground equipment will remain off-limits.

Transportation will be another challenge, Gourlay said. If social distancing guidelines remain in place, a bus that would normally transport 54 students would be carrying 22. In New Rochelle, Watkins added the district is extending the radius for students walking to school. The district also contracts with transportation providers or students take public transportation, which would increase the risk of exposure to the virus.

“We’re all learning,” Watkins said. “You can’t just go find out who has experience with this.” 

Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, which represents school contractors, has a list of questions about how to resume bus service — many of which are also addressed in a “blueprint” recently released by the American Enterprise Institute. The document also notes accommodations schools make for the 2020-21 school year would likely need to remain in place for 2021-22 as well. 

“What are going to be the social distancing protocols on the bus? One student per seat? Are we going to staggered start times or split schedules?” Macysyn asked. “These may seem like simple solutions, but it won’t be as easy as just doubling up on bus routes. And will we have enough drivers?”

Already, he said, contractors are not getting paid and some companies have gone out of business. He added even if buses aren’t running, “the transportation system still must be maintained. If this cycle is broken, and then drivers are laid off, then there is no guarantee that these folks will return to their jobs when school resumes.”

NSTA is also working with the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National Association of Pupil Transportation to create a task force to advise policymakers, “who are not going to be familiar with the many nuances of operating a school transportation system,” Macysyn said.

‘Multiple challenges’

Watkins also discussed a temperature-taking camera — set up in a kiosk — that would detect if a student or staff member entering the school has a fever. Gourlay said he’s heard some suggest taking students’ temperatures when they board a school bus, and regardless of what type of thermometers schools buy, that’s another cost, Smith said.

Such recommendations also raise questions about protocols in place if a student does have a fever. Would they be sent home or separated from other students?

Laurie Combe, president of the National Association of School Nurses, said she’s not familiar enough with fever-detecting cameras to know whether they would be accurate and “how it would be deployed in a school setting while protecting confidentiality.” 

Last week, however, the association released a document providing guidelines on including nurses in local planning efforts to reopen schools. NASN is also urging the Trump administration to include nurses as part of national discussions and provide funding for more school health professionals.

“Adding additional school nurses to schools across the country provides a key solution to help parents and the economy reopen,” said a letter from the organization. “There will be multiple challenges for students as they resume in person classes in school year 2020-2021. For schools to address the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, school nurses need to be in place when schools reopen.” 

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