An Occupational Health Expert on What Needs to Happen For Schools to Safely Reopen

School supplies

Dr. Anthony Harris believes daily screenings are a necessity

As U.S. coronavirus cases continue to soar, public schools are grappling with how to safely and responsibly reopen. Many districts and col­leges have yet to make final decisions, even with the fall term already underway in some parts of the country. And with some students already testing positive for Covid-19, teachers are threatening to go on strike.

Dr. Anthony Harris shared his insights on the challenge ahead. Harris currently leads Covid-19 response operations at occupational health center WorkCare, where he serves as an Associate Medical Director. In response to the pandemic, the company has transitioned into helping businesses get back to work without putting employees or customers at risk. This includes helping them come up with a plan to implement temperature checks and daily screenings, two strategies he believes are also essential to school reopenings.

For Harris, who has a three-year-old about to start pre-K, the issue of whether to reopen schools is personal. “It is incumbent on us as a nation to recognize that under-resourced public schools will require increased attention and resources to pull off successfully bringing students back safely,” he told Wake-Up Call. For more on our discussion, read on.

A lot of parents are feeling helpless right now. What would you tell them in terms of keeping their kids safe?

First and foremost, the teachers and the faculty and the staff all need to be in a surveillance program. And I’ll back up a notch here. So we call it Covid surveillance. In occupational health and medicine, we help employers implement what we call surveillance programs oftentimes that are mandated by OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and other governmental agencies.

So schools will need to have their employees — the staff, the faculty — enrolled in that type of surveillance program. It consists of screening on a daily basis.

That’s going to help prevent the transmission between faculty members as well as from faculty to kids. Now, when we talk about child-to-child or student-to-student transmission, obviously that becomes more difficult. But still first things first: We have to be doing screening across the board with regard to symptoms —and those kids and youth that are sick shouldn’t show up . We have to have a way to screen them out before they come to school. And so, the digital platform is what we’re using with universities to accomplish that.

Public schools face a particular challenge, given funding issues. So is this realistic for public schools? Does it put them at a disadvantage?

What we are seeing, unfortunately, is a divide between a best practice approach of public versus private. You see private schools putting in place more controls for prevention because they have more resources oftentimes. That is definitely a concern, in regards to what is practical from a public school standpoint. But it is incumbent on us as a nation to recognize that under-resourced public schools will require increased attention and resources to pull off successfully bringing students back safely. I got a three-year-old starting pre-K, so it definitely hits home. How do we send her in there safely here in Chicago?

What are the sort of the safety measures you’re looking for your own kid? What would recommend other parents watch out for?

Is there a process by which the parents are required to signify to the school and verify that my kid does not have — and has not had — any symptoms within the last 48 hours? That’s the easiest thing to pull off. You can do that with pen and pad. You can do that with a simple email. You don’t need a digital platform, necessarily — it’s great to have one out of convenience but if screening’s not there that’s a red flag.

Then if the protocols of arrival aren’t there — how’s a kid going to get from school? Obviously busing is going to be an issue. You can’t bus students with strong social distancing in place. It just doesn’t work. Alternatives for arrival and departure with regard to using one exit, multiple exits, partitioning how kids move in and out of the schools with the parent pickup. Those things all become germane to the process of safety. If they’re in place, that means the school hasn’t done a deep dive on what’s the best practice to keep kids safe and I would have dramatic concerns in those circumstances.

Many teachers are also worried about their own safety, given that some districts are not mandating that students wear masks, only teachers. What would you tell them?

My mom was a teacher — she’s retired now. My grandmother and my grandfather — they were all in education. So if they were working today and had to show up to a public school either as an administrator or a teacher, I’d say, “Look, let’s get you the same level of PPE — personal protective equipment — as we do with healthcare workers. Wear a N95 mask.”

Now, the requirement to wear masks as students — that should be in place. Is it going to be difficult to pull off? Absolutely. But does that mean we deviate from something that can potentially have a dramatic impact on transmission? I think the answer is we move forward with the recommendation that kids wear masks. I don’t see an alternative to that in terms of safety protocols. The distancing is going to be difficult in schools and so you have to have another barrier and means of protection.

Would staggering schedules or doing outdoor classrooms be effective?

In regions where outdoor classrooms are doable, absolutely. Let’s move forward with that. We know that being outdoors means being less risky, based on the research that we’ve seen.

Our clients have been doing altered schedules since March. Instead of just three schedules for the workforce, you’re breaking it out in such a way that you minimize the number of people that have to be at any given place at the same time. The same process should work as we see this play out in schools, in terms of that staggered schedule, because the whole name of the game is to limit individual contact — and physically doing that by administrative controls, such as scheduling, are key.

Do you think schools can afford to wait until there’s a vaccine?

We recommended to businesses, “Should you reopen or should you stay remote? If you can do remote, remote is a good option.” I can’t say for schools it’s the best option.

What percentage of the population is not being reached through distance learning because of resource limitations? Those need to be considered, but if it is effective to do remote learning, then that is preferred.

In terms of, “Should you wait overall?” This is perhaps me talking a little beyond a clinical hat, so let me put my MBA hat on. We just can’t afford to have no education. We need to have kids and students learning. The vaccine is not promised at any given time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium.