Reopening Schools, Fall 2020
Both the state of Georgia and the CDC have released guidance to help school authorities “determine their plans and strategies for reopening schools” in the fall, whatever of the status of the pandemic. While neither document is binding, they will be important in establishing the standard of care for both independent and public schools. The guidelines focus on the ability to open buildings and allow students to move freely, based on the degree of potential community spread.
It is very clear from both the Georgia and CDC guidelines that the responsible officials expect variable conditions and therefore flexibility in operational decisions.
CDC Rating Scale
The CDC lays out guidance to risk level by activity, as follows:
- Lowest Risk: Students and teachers engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events.
- More Risk: Small, in-person classes, activities, and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures, or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).
- Highest Risk: Full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.
The CDC guidelines then spell out measures to reduce spread, keep the physical environment healthy, maintain healthy operations, and prepare for when someone gets sick. See below under “Georgia” for examples of recommended actions, many of which are similar for both the CDC and the state.
Georgia: Traffic Light Conditions Guide Actions
The Georgia guidelines, authored by the State School Superintendent and Department of Public Health, provide a decision tree, coded according to the traffic light metaphor of Red/Yellow/Green risk conditions. The color coding represents the danger of community spread in any given school: red represents “Substantial Spread,” yellow represents “Minimal/Moderate Spread,” and green represents “Low/No Spread.” Each condition is “as determined by state and local health officials.” Within each color-coded condition, the state suggests operational measures that may be appropriate to the designated risk of contagion.
Based on the rated condition, therefore, schools might consider various measures including normal operations (green) or staggered use of buildings (yellow) or targeted facility closures (red). In the case of yellow or red conditions, altered operational practices may include such practices as increased cleaning and/or hygiene requirements, turning off water fountains, allowing or requiring face coverings, elimination of field trips, “cohorting” students to keep the same groups together all day and thereby reduce intermingling, delivering meals to students’ homes, providing PPE to cafeteria workers, using remote learning tools, and more. For red conditions, the Georgia guidelines also refer/defer extensively to the CDC and other authorities for their views on hygiene, cleaning, planning, policies, mental health, and communications.
In Georgia, school officials also must remember that the governor’s Executive Orders contain binding rules relating to day-to-day operation of schools. Currently, these include access to the outdoors where possible, limits on gatherings outside school hours, worker screening, hygiene and sanitation measures, and more. In addition, as of July 1st, Georgia’s governor has ordered the state Board of Education to create binding rules, regulations and guidance for public school operations. We do not know yet whether other states will have local binding rules in place regarding school operations in the fall: that will depend on how conditions evolve this summer. All school officials should check their state’s conditions and rules both before the fall semester starts and during the school year.
Decision-making and Best Practices
All school officials must navigate an array of guidelines and rules as they consider opening and operations this fall. We recommend knowing the applicable state or county rules, developing a plan to address operations under different risk conditions, and considering seriously the most conservative cleaning/operations standard available in order to minimize health risks and legal exposure. Taylor English attorneys are available to help you navigate these rules and potential risks.