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Many policies left up to local school districts

State issues guidelines for reopening from COVID-19 closure

COLUMBUS — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Friday that the state was issuing guidelines for the reopening of schools.

What was released was short on actual requirements and consisted mainly of recommendations and advisories, leaving decisions and implementation largely to local school districts.

“Schools can adjust their rules to what works best for them for a safe environment and that protects students and staff,” the governor said at his news conference.

The governor ordered K-12 schools in the state closed for an extended spring break in March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This closure was extended through the end of the academic year.

One thing that is required is for faculty and staff to wear face coverings, either masks or face shields, “unless it is unsafe or when doing so could significantly interfere with the learning process,” DeWine said.

The state lists five goals in policies for reopening schools: vigilantly assessing students and staff for symptoms, washing and sanitizing hands to prevent spread, thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing schools to prevent spread on shared surfaces, practicing social distancing and implementing a face coverings policy.

A planning guide from the Ohio Department of Education was made available over the weekend containing recommendations for meeting these goals.

The guide states that, as COVID-19 will be present during the start of the 2020-21, “schools will need to have the capacity to operate in various modes at different times and, sometimes with minimum advance notice.”

Districts are advised that guidelines may change with circumstances, leading to corrections as the academic year progresses.

“The traditional school experience, as it was known prior to the onset of the pandemic will be different, as will many of the day-to-day practices of schools,” the guide states.

Schools are asked to provide age-appropriate instruction regarding practices, including the importance of handwashing, physical distancing, use of masks, cough and sneeze etiquette and the importance of staying home when sick or displaying symptoms.

Six feet of distancing is recommended between students in classrooms, as well as situations such as the cafeteria, on buses and pickup points, with floor marking put in place to help implement this.

However, for situations, such as band and theater, this distancing could be waived, due to the nature of those learning experiences, the guide said.

To minimize outside contacts, the Department of Health also recommends that schools should, as much as possible, prohibit visitors from entering buildings, limiting to those enrolling new students or coming for emergency reasons.

Shared materials, such as lockers, should be avoided, the guidelines stated. In situations, such as lunch, assigned seating is recommended, as is serving meals in classrooms.

The Department of Health also states that any student exhibiting symptoms at school should be placed in a separate room away from others, monitored by personnel maintaining distancing and wearing personal protective equipment and be sent home as soon as possible.

Families, caregivers and staff should notify a school immediately if they have been exposed to COVID-19, the department said. Those with known exposure must quarantine at home for 14 days. As this could lead to increased absences, it is recommended that policies be adjusted to not penalize students.

In the event of a flare-up in a community, the department said districts should follow additional precautions outlined by the state. Schools are also asked to take into consideration students with special health care needs that place them at higher risk.

Field trips should be avoided, the department said, as they present too many risks and involve students being in close proximity to each other, navigating crowds and having increased interaction with strangers.

As for extracurricular activities, the Department of Health said it will work with the state Department of Education to determine summer practice routines and fall sports policies.

Custodial staff must wear masks and gloves and classrooms should be disinfected after use by students, with bathrooms and other areas disinfected on a regular basis as well. Internal doors should be propped open, whenever possible, to minimize touching of surfaces.

In Lawrence County, superintendents who spoke with The Ironton Tribune last week said they were awaiting guidelines from the governor.

Districts will have several challenges as they prepare to return. Many said the required distancing would be the main factor in what form schools would take locally, whether a staggered schedule for students with alternating groups attending on specific days or regular school weeks.

Distancing requirements would also affect bus schedules, with limited capacity being a possibility, they said.

Superintendents across the county have kept in contact via group messages and with the Lawrence County Educational Services Center. Preliminary plans have been discussed and final plans were expected shortly after the guidelines were sent to schools.