Is school safe this fall? 7 tips from a health expert

July 24, 2020
young girl and boy outside a school wearing masks; is school safe
As new cases of COVID-19 spike around the U.S., school leaders, parents and students are all asking, “is school safe?” Photo: Getty Images.

By Linda DuVal and Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

As cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, education leaders, teachers, parents and students are all grappling with tough questions, chief among them, is school safe this fall?

The superintendent of Colorado’s largest school system, Denver Public Schools, recently announced that the school year will be delayed by a week and will start with online learning only. Other large school systems hope to offer in-person classes — especially for the youngest students ­— but spikes in cases of COVID-19 among younger people could put those plans in jeopardy.

Is school safe this fall? Follow the guidance of public health officials

School officials are partnering closely with local public health officials, and that’s critical since the pandemic is worse in some parts of Colorado than in others. Health experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the State of Colorado have both issued toolkits to offer guidance for school leaders. (Click here to see CDC guidance and here to see information from Colorado health officials.)

Is school safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Terry Krause provides some answers.
Dr. Terry Krause says in order to make schools safe, we must all make our communities safe. Photo courtesy of Dr. Terry Krause.

Children benefit greatly from the social interactions of in-person classes, but keeping kids and their families safe is critical. That’s why dilemmas over back-to-school decisions are so challenging.

“School is very important – not only for the education of our children but the countless other resources schools provide, said Dr. Terry Krause, a family practice physician at UCHealth Primary Care – Highlands Ranch.

Krause has two young children, both of whom are in a small, COVID-compliant day care situation. But parents frequently seek her advice on whether it’s safe to send their children back to school.

“The most important message I want to send is this: if we want our children to be safe at school, we must make our communities safe for them. Adults need to set an example for their children by wearing masks outside the home, social distancing, and demonstrating hand hygiene to their children,” Krause said.

“The more we can reduce community transmission of COVID-19, the better the chance we have for our children to remain healthy.”

She underscored that each family’s situation is unique.

“Parents have to decide what is best for their families,” she said.

“If they have the ability to stay home, or if they have children with chronic medical conditions, it may be wise to do so.  If they do not have these abilities and are able to accept the risks of their children and families potentially acquiring COVID -19, they should do their best to mitigate their risks,” Krause said.

“School is important — the education, the camaraderie, the facilities and resources.  It is all important — but school must look different this year if we want our children to be safe.”

How to keep kids and schools safe

Krause said detailed plans will be critical in order for kids to safely go back to school.

“It’s going to depend on several factors, including community transmission of COVID-19 at the time, precautions put in place at individual facilities, hygiene practices, etc.,” Krause said.

If your district is holding in-person classes, here are seven tips from Krause for keeping your child safe and healthy.

1. Teach kids physical distancing.

“Keeping kids six feet apart is the goal, depending on classroom size, number of students, whether they are equipped with individual desks versus tables,” Krause says.

Of course, children naturally are drawn to one another. So, it takes time for them to learn to stay apart. Use fun objects to show children what a distance of 6 feet looks like. Remind them that they don’t need to stay apart forever — just in the short term — so they can stay healthy and help keep their communities safe.

Students with disabilities may have an especially difficult time with physical distancing, but educational opportunities for them are critical.

Krause said some services can be offered online for students with disabilities.

“Many service providers have been offering virtual services such as speech and occupational therapy,” Krause said. “For students who are unable to use these services, they should still be offered in person.”

2. Remember two key “w’s:” wash hands and wear masks.

Frequent handwashing with soap and water is absolutely essential for everyone. If schools are bringing children back, teachers will be trained to ensure that young kids wash their hands frequently and to help them sing songs like “Happy Birthday” to make sure they scrub long enough. Remind older children and teens to wash their hands frequently, and as much as possible, avoid touching their faces.

Adults and students should all wear masks, especially when they can’t stay a safe distance apart.

“Masks vary widely; we do encourage consistent mask use in all children over the age of two,” Krause said. “The best kinds of masks are adjustable, and that improves comfort. I like masks that adjust at each ear loop to create a more secure fit. A nose wire helps as well,” Krause said.

Masks that fit the face better are less likely to cause the wearer to touch them frequently to keep them in place. Multiple layers of fabric or nonwoven material make the barrier more effective. Children should practice wearing a mask at home so parents can help them learn how to put them on and ensure a proper fit. Masks must be worn over the nose and under the chin.

Click here to see samples of masks that Krause likes.

Krause recommends face shields for some students with disabilities.

“Some intellectual disabilities and developmental conditions will make it difficult for the child to understand the need for mask-wearing,” she said. “Teachers will need to do what they can to keep each child safe.  If the child cannot keep a mask on due to these disabilities, a face shield could be tried.”

3. Stay apart during lunch and recess.

Always wash hands thoroughly before eating and stay apart while eating.

“Schools should advise students to continue to physically distance at lunch and recess, especially when they must remove their masks to eat. Students should put their masks back on once they’re done eating or drinking,” Krause said.

4. Keep children with any symptoms home and be vigilant about any child or adult who appears to be getting sick at school.

While COVID-19 testing ​or routine temperatures screenings may not be feasible for all most schools, teachers and school nurses must be ready to identify students who have fevers or other symptoms of COVID-19.

Schools should also reduce contact on frequently touched surfaces. For instance, they should leave classroom doors open to help reduce the number of people touching doorknobs.

5. Be sure school leaders have a system for frequent cleaning and disinfecting.

Schools should follow CDC guidelines on proper disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas.

Krause says thorough cleaning every night — and more often if possible — is essential.

“Cleaning is crucial on a regular basis and must be done immediately and thoroughly if a person with any symptoms of COVID-19 has been present,” she said.

Is school safe during the COVID-19 pandemic? A girl with wearing a mask holds a binder that says "Back to School."
Photo: Getty Images.

The virus that spreads the new coronavirus is also much more contagious indoors. Therefore, schools should keep windows open as much as possible and should use the best possible air filtration systems that they can. Some school leaders are considering offering some classes outdoors.

6. Reduce close contact in public spaces.

Give bus riders assigned seats and require them to wear masks while on the bus. Keep windows open to improve air flow. Reduce density on busses as much as possible. Encourage students who have other ways to get to school to use those options. Walking and bike riding are healthy ways to get to school.

At school, leaders should mark hallways and stairs with one-way arrows on the floor to cut down on crowding in the halls.

Outdoor activities are encouraged, so students should be allowed to use the playground in small groups.

Since it’s tough for children to stay apart, Krause encourages masks everywhere.

Even outdoors, masks would be safest unless children are able to maintain physical distancing consistently,” Krause said.

7. Be sure your children are up to date on their immunizations and get flu shots this year.

Some families have missed or skipped checkups during the pandemic. It’s absolutely critical to be sure that children receive the full set of recommended vaccines on time. If you are not certain whether your child is fully vaccinated, make an appointment now for a visit with your child’s provider before school starts. Vaccine-preventable illnesses can be very dangerous. Prevent them by immunizing your child.

Along with routine immunizations, Krause said the flu shot will be more important than ever this year. Check with your child’s provider. It should be available by September or October. All adults should also get the flu shot.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.