School Safety in the Time of COVID-19

Daphne Heflin
Daphne Heflin
Elementary school principal; Ed.S. in Educational Leadership and Administration
Masked teacher spraying sanitizer into the hands of a masked student.

If I were to characterize and animate COVID-19, the terrible virus would show up in the form of a barbaric monster fervidly exclaiming, “ARRRRRRGGGHHHH, I’m going to get you!” Children and adults would shudder with angst and fear, not knowing how to get past the monster.

The allegory above represents the simplest form of the situation educators have been facing since the spring of 2020. COVID-19 showed up to haunt us by negatively affecting individuals, families, and organizations around the world. With the upset that began eight months ago came the looming question that we are still searching to answer, “How can we safely educate children?”

How do we plan for school safety during the spread of COVID-19? 

We first must answer a two-part question:  What are the knowns and unknowns?

Let’s address the unknowns first. We don’t know answers to the following:

  • When will we have a vaccine for the virus?
  • Who will be asymptomatic yet contagious?
  • Will the next infected person experience mild, severe, or life-threatening symptoms?
  • Why does the virus infect some exposed individuals but not others?

Each unknown answer represents missing information that would otherwise be helpful in planning to safely educate students in schools. Regardless, we must use the information we know, which leads to the second part of the question. Following are the things we know and must use to create safety plans:

  • The virus is contagious.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages the use of: face masks, social distancing, hand washing/sanitizing, disinfecting of surfaces, temperature checks, and quarantining (once an individual has tested positive for the virus).
  • The definition of “exposure” is to be within six feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes or more.
  • Some people are afraid of COVID-19 and some people are not.

How do we use what we know to create a school safety plan?

It’s always wise to consider the advice of professionals. With that being said, considering the advice of medical professionals and applying their suggestions is smart and will contribute to healthier, safer outcomes. For example, the CDC recommends social distancing; thus, a preventive action to include in a school safety plan is to re-write existing arrival and dismissal procedures to ensure the social distancing of students during the beginning and end of each school day.

Chances of exposure and the rate of transmission can be decreased when we consider both the infectious element of the virus and the definition of exposure. Exposure means being within six feet of an infected individual for at least 15 minutes; so, a way to use this fact to promote safety is to establish an accommodating environmental set-up that allows for at least six feet of separation between individuals.

Additionally, important parts of a school safety plan that should be addressed based on the known facts about COVID-19 include:

  • Visitor policies and procedures
  • Disinfectant procedures and schedules
  • Scheduling of student transitions, arrivals, and dismissals
  • Use of signs and other visuals to communicate
  • Class sizes
  • Furniture arrangement
  • Safety supplies needed
  • Communication with staff, parents, and students
  • Assignments of extra duties such as temperature checks
  • Student and staff dress codes – will they include masks?
  • Instructional arrangement – virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face

How do you mitigate confusion and fears of community members?

Many times, fear comes from the unknown. If school safety plans are unknown to the community and families, people may be afraid. To mitigate fears, people need to be reassured that the school prioritizes their and their children’s well-being and has a plan for their health and safety, and people need to know specifics about what the plan includes. Family wellness efforts should also be implemented.

Suggestions on communicating safety plans with others include social media, school and district websites, newsletters, emails, articles in the local newspaper, phone calls from individuals at the school, safety brochures outlining the safety plan, and community meetings (which may have to be virtual).

How do you respond to and help staff who are uncomfortable returning to school?

Like community members, staff members can fear the unknown as well. Communication of facts decreases the unknowns and therefore mitigates fear, so share the facts. Clearly communicate the school safety plan with staff and share the reasons for the procedures and expectations in the plan.

Other ways to decrease the fears and discomfort of staff include:

  • Assign them to a safety committee that reviews and revises the safety plan when necessary.
  • Hold frequent conversations with them to allow staff to express their concerns, opinions, and emotions.
  • Express empathy to fearful staff. Tell them you understand and share some of your thoughts and feelings as well.
  • Remind staff that “we are in this together” and be available to them when they need to share or express their thoughts.
  • Establish a period for staff to visit the school counselor and/or the school nurse for additional support. Encourage self-care outside of school.
  • Show staff members schedules for disinfecting.
  • Provide staff with personal protection supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer.

Fears and stress can impact health, and we already know the health issues that arise from COVID-19, so we must have a plan that decreases the impact of both.

I’ll conclude with the ending to the “Tale of the COVID-19 Monster” we discussed at the start of the article. “Years and years later, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents and students looked back to reminisce on the time of terror and the beastly COVID-19. They talked about life’s changes that occurred and the eventual defeat of the beast. All involved in the conversation made it safely out of the grips of terror and were stronger because of their perseverance, planning, positive attitudes, and collective efforts.”

With proper planning based on the facts, precautions and preventive measures can be taken to help safely educate children and increase overall school safety in the COVID-19 era.

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