Health and Wellness group completes draft recommendations for opening schools amidst COVID-19

Draft recommendations concerning mask wearing, desk spacing and extracurriculars in schools have been crafted for eventual development of a Delaware’s Reopening Schools Guidance later this month.

The Health and Wellness working group completed its month of meetings Tuesday after a final discussion on its draft recommendations. The recommendations for the group address three potential scenarios — minimal, moderate and significant spread of the virus — and how schools should respond in those landscapes.

“Our job as a committee was to provide [Secretary of Education Susan Bunting] with recommended guidance that we thought was both feasible for schools and protected the health and safety of staff and students. Over the last five weeks, we have engaged in robust discussion around the three scenarios and we also received a lot of community feedback as well as [Division of Public Health] guidance that helped shape the document we will be reviewing today,” said Michael Rodriguez, co-chairperson of the committee and associate secretary for the Delaware Department of Education.

“The collective voices of this committee and our community have allowed us to develop recommendations that will help keep Delaware students and staff safe and healthy,” he continued.

While the group has discussed the different considerations before, the final meeting allowed them to fine tune the draft recommendations. Public comment and feedback is still being accepted at reopeningideas@doe.k12.de.us or by voicemail at 302-735-4244.

The recommendations of the three working groups will be considered in the development of Delaware’s Reopening School Guidance, which is slated to be released the week of July 13. 

In the three scenarios, moderate spread — when classes could become hybrid to help stifle the spread of the virus and require significant changes to classroom and school functions — required the most time and discussion. 

In that scenario, desks could be spaced out by six feet, assemblies of less than 50 students could be discontinued, foot traffic and hallway flow could be directional and face coverings should be worn.

The potential of teachers moving between classes was proposed by committee members, but Stacy Greenly, a counselor at Polytech High School, noted that that is difficult at a high school level, given the specific content areas.

When it comes to face masks, Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent for Caesar Rodney School District, raised concerns about enforcing it. 

“I don’t believe this should ever become a disciplinary issue where we would exclude a student because they don’t have a facial covering,” he said. “I’m always reluctant to put something in that is almost impossible to enforce. While I see the value in it, especially for teachers and staff to wear it, I stay up nights trying to figure out how to tell my principals to enforce that.”

Meghan Walls, co-chairperson of the committee and a pediatric psychologist at Nemours, agreed that it presented difficulties and noted, going forward, it would be presented as a point to discuss as the recommendations are refined more.

“I’m with you here, as a psychologist I don’t want this to become a discipline issue,” she said. “I also work for a healthcare system, I know how important they are. I think a lot of us are in the same position you are, with feeling a little bit torn on this one.”

Mario Ramirez, of Opportunity Labs, noted that Michigan released guidance requiring masks in certain phases of recovery.

“I know other states have said that they are recommending they be worn and then others are not,” he said. “I think it’s all over the place.”

Sen. Anthony Delcollo said the committee owes it to the community to give a recommendation that the data supports.

“Understanding that there are challenges with all of this, and I’ve even brought up concerns about funding and cost and how a lot of this will be effectuated, but time and time again we come back to the question of: what is the most proper course given the data that we have? What is the best thing we can do in light of science?” he said. 

Dr. Ramirez shared some of the data that came out of studies from the New England Journal of Medicine this week, looking at the multisystem inflammatory syndrome impacting children in the northeast.

“They looked at 300 cases of those kids who developed the multisystem inflammatory syndrome and what they found was that the attack rate or the likelihood of kids developing symptomatic COVID was about 22 kids out of every 100,000 cases in persons under 21 years old and about two of those develop the multisystem inflammatory syndrome,” he said. “You can extrapolate that to the number of students in Delaware and get some idea of how many folks you can expect to get clinically symptomatic and then develop multisystem inflammatory disease. But again that’s 300 students in the northeast but it’s the best U.S. data that we have.”

Also in this scenario, families are encouraged to check temperature for students and monitor for systems of COVID-19. If possible, staff could also check temperatures in school buildings. Students who become ill would be quarantined and taken off campus for testing. If a student is positive, contacts should be alerted.

Kristin Dwyer, of the Delaware State Education Association, pointed to the fact the recommendations lacked in addressing staff screening. Dr. Walls agreed that it should be addressed.

For athletics in this scenario, “schools should continue to refine allowances for athletic activities in line with scientific data and in coordination with Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, DPH and DOE.” The draft recommendation represents broader language after discussion came following initial considerations to exclude some sports but not others. 

While athletics were a pressing concern in discussions, band and music surfaced Tuesday.

Dr. Fitzgerald noted that a study slated to be released in August could address some of those points. 

“It’s something that we should at least list as something that’s under consideration so people know that it’s still being considered and there’s going to be a plan as we move forward,” he said. “Because I’d hate to see it, in different schools, and people handling it differently without any guidance whatsoever.” 

“We’ll just have to do some homework on that,” noted Mr. Rodriguez.

In significant spread, school buildings would be closed and learning would be remote. Minimal spread would see few changes from what once was normal operating procedure. 

Sue Smith, a nurse in Mispillion Elementary, reminded the group that some proactive measures — students facing forward in classes and desks spaced out slightly — should be considered.

“The virus is still here, it’s just that our numbers aren’t up,” she said. “We still need to be proactive in keeping everyone safe and healthy as best as we can without saying, ‘OK, you can go to your small groups, and you can do this and face each other.’ Because we do see that in the flu season, that kids sitting across from each other do get sick at the same time.”

The Academics and Equity will meet once more Wednesday night from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Operations and Services concluded their meetings, and published their draft of recommendations. Comments are still being accepted.