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Many school buildings can't safely reopen right now. Here's why

Fast Co.Exist 2020-05-21 15:35:18
[Source Image: surpasspro/iStock]

There are widespread public health concerns about whether it will be safe to reopen schools after what would have been the usual summer break. Information changes daily. For example, there are reports of a new illness striking children that appears to be related to COVID-19.

Still, schools need to plan to reopen, perhaps in time for the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

There’s more to it than figuring out how to maintain enough distance between students when they’re sitting at their desks. Schools also have to decide how to handle everyday situations such as kids playing basketball in the school gym, eating in the cafeteria, or sitting together in the auditorium for a school assembly.

[Source Image: surpasspro/iStock]

Students need to be able to safely enter and exit buildings without bumping into each other. They’ll need room to pass one another in hallways. Districts may need to purchase and distribute masks and other personal protective equipment to teachers, janitorial staff, students, and others.

Students will need to keep the sharing of calculators and technology to a minimum and make a frequent habit of wiping down all devices. They’ll have to wash their hands more often and for longer periods of time. The frequency and intensity of cleaning and sanitizing floors, walls, tables, and other surfaces will need to increase as well.

To make this easier, one general approach under consideration is to reduce the number of students in school buildings at one time.

Some states, like Indiana and Ohio, are considering a mix of remote and in-person instruction, with students alternating what they do day by day.

A related strategy is staggering attendance during the same school day. Some students would attend in the morning and some in the afternoon. Halving the number of kids present would make it easier for schools to follow through with CDC guidelines to reduce congestion in classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias.

Finding new space

Some education leaders have proposed considering another strategy: finding new space.

Splitting students in different classes or grades across multiple locations lowers the building density. This can be done by moving half of a school’s students and teachers to another location. Students who attend at each location could be more spread out than if they were all in just one place.

One way to do this is to keep high school instruction fully remote in the fall and teach younger students in vacated high school buildings.

Our research suggests there is another strategy to find new space for schools.

For years, public, charter, and private schools have shared space with community organizations such as churches and community centers that accommodate programs running before or after official school hours.

Schools could use YMCAs, public libraries, or community centers to expand the space they have available. If schools split attendance between their main school site and those other sites, then most students at all grade levels in a district could potentially have an in-person option when schools reopen.

Different strokes

In the end, the best approach will be depend on what’s right for specific schools and their local communities.

Operations researchers have helped find solutions since the 1960s. For example, they assisted with school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, they aided high schools that shifted their start times to let students get more sleep. Today, operations researchers can help local school systems face the threat of COVID-19.

Samantha Keppler is assistant professor of technology and operations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and Karen Smilowitz is the James N. and Margie M. Krebs professor in industrial engineering and management sciences at Northwestern University. This article was republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.