California schools will look different when they reopen next year, according to new statewide guidance. Students should expect to wash their hands and have their temperature taken often. They will likely wear masks and only attend classes a few days a week with a small group of classmates. Signs and taped marks on the floor will tell them which direction to walk and where to stand in hallways and in the cafeteria.

A 55-page guidance document, “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools,” released June 8 by the California Department of Education offers sweeping recommendations about everything from keeping students and staff safe while at school to the types of instructional models that school districts should consider to maintain social distancing.

Ultimately, school district officials will decide how to reopen campuses. The guidance, the document states, “honors the varied local context of each of our local education authorities.”

“As we prepare to move into the likely reopening of our schools, we provide this guidance as a ‘how-to’ for safely reopening our schools,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond in the introduction. “In it you will find answers to many questions, including the need for physical distancing and the types of recommended personal protective equipment. You’ll also learn ways that we will have to rearrange our staff and students in order to ensure that that those who are opting for in-person instruction can do so safely.”

The guidance recommends that school districts require everyone to wear masks or face shields while on campus and that they maintain six feet of distance from others. Limiting the number of students in each class and keeping students together with one teacher to minimize interactions are recommended, as is limiting the number of students on campus at one time.

Students also could be spread out across a campus, with classes in auditoriums, cafeterias or outside if necessary. More staff will be needed to ensure physical distancing for younger children and students with special needs, according to the guidance.

Social and emotional needs of students

The state guidance also places a strong emphasis on how districts will meet the social and emotional needs of students, as well as strongly urging that schools set up a way to assess how well students are doing academically, either through in-person or remote instruction.

The document follows several similar guidance documents issued by county offices of education over the past week or two, including Imperial County, Los Angeles County, Santa Clara County and Sacramento County, as well as by the California Department of Public Health.

School districts in coordination with their county health officers will determine when they will reopen and what safety measures they will be required to use.

“The intent of this documents is to be a guide for local discussion on reopening schools,” according to the introduction. “It is not a ‘one-size-fits all’ document.”

The guidance anticipates many districts will offer hybrid or blended models of education, a combination of distance and in-person instruction or a model where some students go to school and others stay home for instruction, Thurmond said at a press conference June 8. Many school districts have surveyed parents and learned many want distance learning. Thurmond encouraged districts to accommodate those requests to ensure small class sizes for adequate social distancing.

Schools should be analyzing the footprints of their campuses to determine how many students can be safely taught on campus, he said.

The guidance offers a number of examples of how schools can change their schedules to accommodate social distancing:

  • The two-day rotation blended learning model: Students report to school on two designated days based on grade level for in-person instruction. On two other days they take enrichment classes offered on the school site or through community partners, like parks departments or nonprofits, that are coordinated by credentialed school staff. On Fridays all students take part in distance learning.
  • Blended learning model:  Half the students at a school will attend in-person classes on campus for four full days per week while the others take online classes from home. Then the students alternate. One day a week all students participate in distance learning while teachers use that time for planning or taking professional development courses.
  • Looping structure: Keeping students with the same teacher as the previous year to build a better understanding of health and safety issues, which decreases health risks, according to the guidance.
  • Early/late staggered schedule: Grade levels would have staggered start and dismissal times, an increased number of lunch periods and multiple meal distribution points. It also suggests that teachers rotate from class to class while students remain in their homerooms.

Recess and sports would be a little less playful, with supervisors in place to encourage physical distancing and only no-contact sports allowed, according to the guidance.

Lunches can be served in the classroom, outside or in the lunchroom, but there will be no buffets and no share tables, according to the recommendations. Sneeze guards and partitions will separate people from one another at the cash register and other places where contact is close.

Keep those hands clean

The guidance also recommends that students, teachers and staff wash their hands or use hand sanitizer as they enter campuses or board school buses and frequently throughout the school day. It suggests that school districts consider portable hand-washing stations throughout campuses and near restrooms to keep people from congregating. Schools should ensure there also is enough hand sanitizer for each work station, although it should only be used with supervision for children younger than age 9.

Staff and students with medical problems that keep them from wearing a mask should use face shields or a cloth drape tucked into their shirt to cover their mouth and nose, according to the guidance. Staff in the lunchroom, front office, custodial staff and those checking temperatures are required to wear gloves.

“We have not heard from any school district leaders who have said they can’t open because of physical distancing requirements,” Thurmond said Monday.

Thurmond said the biggest challenge to reopening with physical distancing is funding. Discussions with the governor and state and federal legislators will continue to ensure schools have the funds they need to operate safely during the pandemic, he said.

Last week, California lawmakers agreed to rescind all the cuts to education proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in his revised budget on the assumption that Congress would soon pass, and President Donald Trump would sign, aid for states that would include $14 billion for California.

The state guidance echoes Centers for Disease Control guidance that says teachers should wear face shields so that students can see their faces and avoid barriers to phonological instruction.

PPE and temperature checks

The school district is required to provide personal protective equipment like masks and gloves for students and staff if needed. On Monday, state education officials announced the governor has committed to providing that equipment for schools.

A checklist on campus access says that campus visitors should be limited and that anyone with symptoms associated with COVID-19 should be denied entrance. Students should be monitored throughout the day, beginning with temperature checks by their parents before school, upon entrance to the school and throughout the day.

Students who develop symptoms while at school should be isolated from others until they can get a ride home or to a hospital.

While the guidance is focused on reopening it also asks school district officials to have a plan to close a classroom or office if someone becomes infected with the coronavirus or entire schools if there is a surge in coronavirus cases.

The department worked in tandem with the California Department of Public Health, which recently released its own guidance on school reopening, and Cal/OSHA, which oversees worker safety, said Thurmond. Staff also met with public health officials, state safety officials, researchers, teachers, parents, students and administrators to compile the guidance. The Department of Public Health guidance focuses on safety, while the Department of Education guidance includes educational programing in its guidance.

But safety is the first priority, ahead of everything else, Thurmond said.

“There is nothing more important right now then promoting the safety of our students, and our staff and their families and addressing the social emotional needs of our students,” Thurmond said. “We recognize that COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on everything that we know about providing education. It forces us to enter into new conversations about the way educational programs look and will look going forward.”

Story originally published by EdSource.