Schools Struggle with Reopening Amid Pandemic Surge

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Local officials test an array of approaches that offer hope for safe re-openings 

By Hazel Trice Edney

With coronavirus cases rising across the U.S. as a result of the highly contagious Delta variant, school districts nationwide are moving quickly to implement public-health precautions in preparation for fall re-openings.   

The scramble to put these precautions in place reflects the intense pressures that school districts around the country are under to reopen amid growing concerns that many students have struggled to keep up academically during months of virtual learning. That pressure only intensified with the recent guidance the federal Centers for Disease Control issued urging schools to fully reopen in the fall, even if they are unable to put in place all the precautions needed to contain the coronavirus.   

These measures include an array of new cleaning regimens, social distancing protocols, contact tracing procedures, and revamped classroom layouts. The concerns are particularly acute in school districts serving low-income Black and Latino communities that were among the hardest hit by the pandemic.   

More than that, many school districts, particularly those in low-income communities of color, are facing the arduous task of creating safe environments in buildings that are aging with poor ventilation and in grave need of maintenance. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a disturbing report in 2018 that found low-income students, including Blacks and Latinos, are forced to learn in “low-quality school facilities” that are poorly maintained. The commission concluded that the situation poses a threat to the health of students.    

More than that, schools that serve high-poverty populations – those with at least 75 percent of students receiving subsidized lunches – operate in buildings whose average age is nearly 50 years old, according to the most recent data available. Experts say that these schools have had problems with air quality long before the pandemic struck.     As a result, many school districts are moving aggressively, and creatively, to field-test a variety of safety measures, protocols, and equipment. In the process, these schools are providing something of a roadmap for other districts scrambling to safely reopen.    

Some school districts are working to ensure safe in-person learning with local campaigns that encourage community vaccination for all who are eligible. Others are leveraging innovative technology – including robots designed to identify and kill the Covid-19 and other viruses and germs — to clean and disinfect classrooms. And some are even teaming up with design professionals who are exploring ideas on how to revamp classroom layouts and other spaces in the age of Covid.    

At Arizona’s Phoenix Union High School District, for example, school leaders organized a pop-up vaccination event at 15 schools in the district, teamed up with ride-hailing service Lyft to provide free transportation to the sites, and successfully vaccinated more than 3,000 people. Philadelphia’s school district, whose student population totals more than 200,000, has taken a similar approach, launching a Philly Teen Vaxx campaign to encourage students to be inoculated.    

The Biden administration has also moved aggressively to help schools struggling to put safety measures in place, particularly those in inner cities. The administration is partnering with 75 of the largest urban school districts and local pharmacies to help provide resources to staff pop-up vaccine clinics on school campuses.      Other schools are taking far more unorthodox approaches. In Deleware’s Christina School District, for example, school administrators are making a peculiar bet: that newly designed COVID-19 killing robots will provide an extra layer of security – and ease the concerns of students, parents, and teachers. Adibot, a tall cylindrical robot with high-grade cleaners, spends approximately three minutes in each room, emitting UV-C light and spraying disinfectant, which helps to clean surfaces and the air.   

In discussing this approach, the Delaware Department of Education’s chief equity officer, James Simmons, said that the Christina School District was an ideal place to test out the robot’s effectiveness given that the district primarily serves a low-income population that has been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19.     

Some school districts are using this moment to go beyond simply addressing the dangers posed by Covid-19. They are also assessing the overall health and safety of their buildings, many of them in need of an overhaul to create conditions that promote learning and creativity.   

“The pandemic has underscored the need to rethink public spaces and other shared spaces,” said Paul Scialla, founder of the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), a company that uses scientific-based approaches to designing buildings that promote the health and well-being of occupants. “This is an opportunity for many schools to address the immediate concerns stemming from the pandemic as well as the long-term health and safety of the school’s shared spaces.”   Indeed, the IWBI  is in the process of partnering with schools and communities throughout the country to ensure students, teachers and faculty can safely return to full-time, in-person learning. The IWBI is reviewing the health and safety protocols  against the high standards of its WELL Health Safety Rating.Those standards were developed by over 600 health and public space experts to provide the guidance needed for organizations to improve indoor health and safety.   

Some of the schools that have achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating include the Fairfax County, Virginia school district, where administrators collaborated with the IWBI to help safeguard against Covid-19 throughout its 219 school facilities, as well as the Upper St. Clair School District, located in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.    According to recent reporting of a study conducted by the Well Living Lab in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, air filtration systems can add an extra safeguard that limits the aerosol spread of viral particles. The researchers built an experimental classroom and observed how adding portable air purifiers to a classroom may result in up to five times lower particle concentrations in the air throughout the entire room.   The study also observed that adding portable air purifiers provided a significant reduction in the rate at which infectious particles deposit on surfaces compared to using an HVAC system (with MERV filtration).   

The findings from the WELL Living Lab’s study were similar to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School districts are responding to this breadth of research on particle transmission by investing in air filtrations systems. For example, the New York City Department of Education purchased  over 100,000 portable air purification units from the leading wellness technology company, Delos.     IWBI’s Scialla says they are in talks with dozens of other districts and are particularly focused on low-income, minority populations that have been ravaged by the pandemic.       

Said Scialla, “Teachers and school administrators have enough on their plate. We hope that the WELL Health-Safety Rating will give students, parents and communities at large the peace of mind they need to fully return to the classroom.”