Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker today provided guidelines for the county’s 13 school districts to implement “a safe, and reasonably normal” reopening of their schools this fall for in-person instruction.
The guidelines, part of a state-mandated process in which each school district must enact its own health and safety plan before reopening, were laid out in a three-page letter sent today to the county’s public school administrators.
The letter recommends, for instance, that masks be required on buses and possibly in hallways, but not in classrooms. That a minimum distance of three feet be enforced for classroom seating. And that cafeteria seating be staggered, hallway traffic minimized, and handwashing strictly enforced, among other advisories.
“We now face the task of planning for a safe, and reasonably normal, return to school in just a few short months,” Damsker’s letter states. “With the support of everyone involved, including students, their families, and district staff, this can be accomplished effectively.”
None of the suggestions is binding on the districts, and the letter acknowledges that each district has unique characteristics that others may not. But it stresses that consistency in procedures and practices are encouraged, and that “all plans will be centered on the health and safety of students and staff.”
Among the guidelines released earlier this month by the Pennsylvania Department of Education is a requirement that each district’s school board create and approve a health and safety plan before reopening for in-person instruction. The PDE indicated that Bucks County’s plans be created in consultation with the county’s health department.
Damsker’s letter notes that Bucks County has reduced its number of new COVID-19 infections to a low baseline with minimal levels of community spread. The county is expected to move into the least-restrictive “green” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan by June 26.
Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown of public schools in March as a preventive measure to flatten the curve of the coronavirus’ spread. Since just before the closures, Damsker and county Emergency Services Director Scott T. Forster have met regularly with superintendents and other county public education leaders to help share expertise and strategies for addressing school health and safety concerns.
“While health and safety considerations are paramount, guidance also is rooted in our understanding and belief that social interaction and in-person instruction is essential to our children’s emotional well-being, as well as their educational growth and advancement,” Damsker wrote.
His letter stressed that the Bucks County Health Department will be adopting an approach that treats COVID-19 similarly to other contagious diseases found in schools, and allows classrooms, schools and district to remain open in the event of a confirmed case of the virus.
Among the recommended guidelines:
- Parents and guardians must screen children for symptoms before school each day, as must district staff before leaving for work.
- Mask-wearing will be allowed, but not required, in classrooms, but students and staff will be required to have a mask with them at all times in case one is needed.
- Masks will be required aboard buses, where up to two students will be allowed to share a seat.
- Staff not able to socially distance from students in class must wear a mask or face shield.
- Three-foot distancing, as recommended by the World Health Organization, will suffice as the minimum for classroom seating, and classrooms will be configured to maximize social distancing.
- Frequent hand-washing or sanitizing, and regular disinfection of high-touch surfaces will be required.
- Ventilation in classrooms and common areas will be enhanced when possible.
- High-traffic hallway use will be limited by staggering the end of classroom periods when feasible, and masks may be required if staggering is not feasible.
- Cafeteria seating will be staggered, and possibly assigned, to enforce social distancing and assist contact tracing if necessary.
- The Bucks County Health Department will take the lead on any contact tracing, isolation of ill students and staff, and other actions needed to contain infection and spread.
“Throughout both the reopening in the fall, and any interscholastic athletic programs starting prior to that time, the Bucks County Health Department will remain your full and committed partner to navigate any changes to this situation, and to make adjustments to the plans if needed,” Damsker’s letter concludes. “As we strive to minimize the overall effects of COVID-19, the health and safety of the entire school community remains our priority.”
A full copy of the letter can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/ycf8ges3