Delaware Department of Education releases guidance for returning to schools

The Department of Education released its Returning to School Guidance Wednesday, addressing face coverings, social distancing, transportation, cleaning, staffing and more for when schools begin again this fall.

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting announced Tuesday the decision on whether school buildings will reopen is slated for early August, and will be contingent on how widespread the novel coronavirus is in the state. 

The guidelines are intended to be used as support for Delaware’s public schools as they begin planning for the 2020-2021 school year. How that looks in each district and charter may run the gamut, much like how remote learning unfolded at the end of last academic year. 

“This collaboration between the Division of Public Health and the Department of Education is [laying] out what schools must plan for, and then the individual school districts have to take the task of making sure that this works in a particular school district, according to their needs, their size, their buildings, their population and so forth,” Dr. Bunting said Tuesday during a press conference. “That will possibly take a different look in different places.”

During Tuesday’s conference, she, Gov. John Carney and Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay emphasized the desire to go back to in-person learning, but that the decision would be made according to science. The amount of positive cases on a daily basis, the number of positive cases as a percentage of the population, the severity of the illness measured by hospitalization and death rates will factor in to how schools reopen.

The plan addresses three potential scenarios: minimal community spread, minimal-to-moderate community spread and significant community spread. 

The guidance explains that the recommendations are “based on the best available evidence, science, and best practices in both education and public health. As new evidence and best practices emerge, recommendations may shift, and flexibility will be key.”

In July, the state is at the minimal to moderate community spread level. According to the guidance, “schools will likely reopen for the 2020-2021 school year in a new environment, requiring innovative models for delivering instruction and supporting the social emotional wellness of students, their families and staff.” 

Moderate spread would see a hybrid model for remote and in-person learning opportunities, with precautions in place. (In minimal community spread, schools are open for in-person instruction. Significant spread would lead to school building closures and a return to remote learning.)

Under health and safety directives, staff and students in grades four to 12 must wear face coverings in the school building, “except when doing so would inhibit the individual’s health.” For grades pre-k through three, face coverings are advised.

Students and staff must have access to handwashing facilities and supplies and hand sanitizer, and be allowed to wash hands between activities. 

In the classroom, guidelines for social distancing are present: individuals must keep a minimum of three feet apart with face coverings, including when seated at desks or standing in classrooms. Six feet or greater is not mandatory, but strongly recommended. 

Students should eliminate table sharing, but if it isn’t possible, then the students must be seated at least three feet away, with face coverings.

Desks must be arranged to face the same direction.

Hallways or corridors should flow in one direction. If that’s not possible, the recommendations suggest traffic flow in one direction on each side of the hall, with at least six feet between in a single-file flow.

Physical education courses or group classes without tables should have activities planned that allow for social distancing.

The guidance also calls for a cancellation of off-site field trips, and avoiding large scale gatherings of more than 50 people. 

Students should also be kept in “stable groups” to limit mixing of classes. Outside visitors to the buildings should be limited. 

Schools must identify an area or room separate from others to quarantine a student or staff member who becomes ill. Students and staff should complete health assessments before leaving for school. 

For buses, capacity must be limited so that students can be seated with three or more feet apart on the bus, with face coverings. Students from the same family may sit together in one row. Mask-wearing on buses follows the same recommendations as in buildings. 

High-touch surfaces must be cleaned between every bus run. Windows should be open to allow ventilation, weather permitting.

Outdoor opportunities and ventilation also factor into the guidance. The guidelines recommend that educators increase ventilation in classrooms by opening windows if possible and encouraging using outdoor spaces as much as possible during the school day.

Enhanced cleaning throughout the facilities in high-touch areas (railings, doorknobs, bathrooms) is mandatory, between every 15 minutes and two hours, using EPA-approved cleaning and disinfecting solutions. 

Following the release of the guidance, Delaware State Education Association said in a statement that the association is “encouraged to see that the recommendations of these work groups have been included in the guidance released by the Delaware Department of Education.” (Several DSEA members served on the working groups originally tasked with drafting recommendations.)

“The process turns now to the school districts who must decide whether or not they have the ability to follow this guidance and open safely,” the statement reads said. 

To be successful, the guidance will have to be “strictly adhered to by the school districts,” DSEA notes.

“They need to take a hard look at what must be done to keep students and staff safe and healthy. They need to make an honest assessment of their ability to do it. We ask that they reach out to the local associations in their district to help make these challenging decisions,” the statement said. “If they don’t, we will support our local associations in their demand for a seat at the table. Then, if the districts believe they can move forward, plans can be made to reopen schools. However, if there is even the slightest doubt, the districts need to start the school year in a remote learning environment and continue until they can follow this guidance.”

DSEA noted that it “applauds” districts such as Appoquinimink, which has already delayed the beginning of their school year. The school board voted last week that the district would begin school after Labor Day (rather than before) to give more time for preparing for the year ahead.

“[DSEA] suggest that others should consider similar action to allow sufficient time to assess the ability to meet the DOE guidance and prepare for the upcoming school year in whatever form it takes,” the statement continues. 

The guidance comes after a month-long series of meetings conducted by three working groups. The groups — focused on Health and Wellness, Academics and Equity or Operations and Services — sent draft recommendations to the Department of Education earlier this month. 

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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