Masked Teachers, Desks 6 Feet Apart: How Returning to School Could Look Post Stay-Home Order


There's no official date for when Washington state students might return to school, but discussions are underway to determine how to do so safely when Gov. Jay Inslee's stay-home order is lifted.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said it best during a webinar with the League of Education Voters last week: "Nobody thinks we're coming back (to school) in anything that doesn't still look like social distancing."

What might social distancing look like in a school setting?

Here are strategies officials in the state, country and across the world are starting to think about when returning to school post-COVID-19.

Alternating schedules

When students are cleared to return to school, they might do so on an alternating schedule to maintain distance between their peers.

Reykdal mentioned potential split schedules in the April 23 webinar.

In a split schedule, some students could go to school in the mornings, others in the evenings. Or, they could report to school on different days of the week.

"There are people thinking about unbelievable schedules, and that will all sort of feed Emergency Management's thinking (and) the governor's thinking," he said.

Elementary students return first

Younger students and students with disabilities could return to the classroom sooner than high school-aged students.

Elementary students learning the building blocks of literacy and math often need face-to-face environments, according to Reykdal.

"We focus the face-to-face time for our K-8 students who are probably least likely to have success online ... and have more of our high school students focus on the distance technology," Rekydal said in the webinar.

Other countries, like Denmark, have reopened schools for children up to 12 years old following country-wide lockdown orders. Israel is reopening for students up to third grade.

Desks 6 feet apart

New draft guidance for reopening the economy released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week suggests placing desks six feet apart in school classrooms, reported the Associated Press.

Creating distance within schools is easier for some than others. Low-density districts could have more options for social distancing.

"Part of it is size. If you're an entire school of 100 students in rural Washington, that's very different than a 2,000-person high school for your opportunity," Reykdal said.

Federal guidelines under review also suggest safety measures like one-way hallways, kids and teachers in masks and temperature-checking students before entering buildings, reported the Washington Post.

Say goodbye to group activities

Having lunch in the classroom instead of a crowded cafeteria could be a new norm.

New CDC guidance also suggests keeping playgrounds closed upon initial reopening and canceling other events where gatherings take place, like school assemblies and field trips.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined a phased reopening of the state earlier this week. He said schools would "develop new protocols for physical education classes and recess at schools, as well as processes to deeply clean and sanitize schools, parks and playgrounds to keep infection rates down," reported CNN.

Robust sanitation procedures

Regular deep cleaning and sanitation routines also will be a new norm in schools across the country.

In its reopening guidelines for schools, the CDC recommends frequently cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces -- door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains -- and shared objects -- toys, games, art supplies -- between uses.

In France, where students will return to school next month, rules regarding masks and strict hand-washing procedures will be in place. Students will be directed to "wash their hands upon arrival at school, before and after each trip to the toilet, before and after each meal, after play, after blowing their nose, coughing or sneezing, after touching shared objects, and before going home," according to international news agency Agence France-Presse.

A menu of options

In Washington, the goal is to have a framework in place and a menu of options for school districts prior to reopening, Reykdal said.

"We are beginning to look at strategies for when school reopens, but that work hasn't yet kicked off in earnest," OSPI spokesperson Katy Payne told The News Tribune.

OSPI will soon pull together a stakeholder group to think through what a return to school in the fall could look like.

"Ideally, this group will have folks with expertise from around the educational system, as well as legislators, folks from the Department of Health, and others," Payne said.

For now, Reykdal said the state is focusing on securing more test kits to get a better grasp on the state of COVID-19 in Washington.

The hope is by early June, more guidance will be released regarding restarting school in September.

"We're just in an unknown time -- there's no certainty about it and there's no decisions right now, but all those variables are starting to come to play," he said.