Business and Operations//
September 26, 2021
Traditionally, schools have been able to introduce and manage clear-cut policies and procedures to keep their communities safe. But it’s no secret COVID-19 has challenged everything we thought we knew about managing the spread of germs and navigating new regulations.
The 2020–21 academic year marked new considerations for protecting the health and well-being of school communities by offering in-person and virtual opportunities for engagement and growth. Schools developed protocols to manage testing, mask compliance, and more.
The current school year may seem like it’s positioned to use the lessons learned in the last year, but there are new variables in the mix and an increased desire to return to normalcy.
Here’s why you should update last year’s COVID-19 response plan.
Clear Boundaries of a New Year
The 2020–21 school year included direct guidance on quarantine measures, necessary moves to virtual events and programming when physical distancing wasn’t achievable, and immense anticipation of vaccination availability.
Many schools made the hard decision to remain virtual for much of the year and pivot in-person extracurriculars to online spaces, losing much of the behavioral and social components of their programs. Schools developed decision trees on how to assess and manage exposures. Expectations for use of sick leave and treatment of absenteeism were clearly established.
As organizations began prepping for the 2021–22 school year, though, policies and protocols needed to be revamped to meet the new environment of risk.
Increased Flexibility, Decreased Clarity
While many cities are seeing an increase in flexibility of mandates and requirements, they are also facing decreased levels of clarity on how to move forward. As schools continue into the academic year, they must clearly consider how their changing populations, compliance levels, and available resources will impact the programming offered and protocols created.
Many schools have been unable to duplicate the risk mitigation tactics of the previous school year. With increasing vaccination levels, local regulations are encouraging more flexible prevention strategies and returning to live, in-person programming and events.
This increased flexibility has created questions about how to manage various prevention and mitigation tactics.
Your concerns may remain uncertain and could vary depending on your location. These may include:
- outbreaks in unvaccinated populations;
- breakthrough transmissions;
- quarantine protocols;
- impact by contagiousness of variants and mixed-vaccination levels;
- event management;
- mask compliance regardless of vaccinated populations; and
- availability and structure of testing.
Compiling Resources to Mitigate Risk
From local to regional to national health experts, we encourage you to take a comprehensive look at how you can layer your risk mitigation strategies. Consider how you offer testing; what physical changes may need to happen on campus; and what education and outreach need to happen to ensure compliance with policies.
As you reorganize your policies and protocols, a strong relationship with your local Department of Health is the first step in continuing to protect the whole community. Working directly with health departments can increase awareness of available resources, allow for on-site vaccination, and gauge testing requirements, etc.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has outlined layered prevention strategies in three main categories:
- Personal strategies: Individuals’ behaviors to protect themselves and those around them.
- Administrative strategies: Process and policies that keep people safe.
- Environmental strategies: Physical structures put in place to distance people from hazards.
Tune in to ask questions related to this Source article or other topics you've encountered lately.
Apply Lessons and Best Practices
#1—Vaccines for all eligible community members.
A key risk mitigation technique, both for prevention and management, is ensuring everyone eligible for the vaccine receives it. For those questioning getting the vaccine, your school can play a vital role in providing open education about the importance of a vaccinated community in managing both outbreaks and overall hospitalizations.
#2—Testing should be accessible and prompt.
The needs of re-entry testing varies greatly, based on your school’s specific activities. Partner with your local Department of Health to determine appropriate testing methods, along with the necessary wait times.
#3—Masks will continue to play a large role in preventing and managing the spread of the virus.
Regardless of increased local flexibility, experts still consider masks important in managing the overall spread of the virus. While guidance is plentiful on the best masks for prevention, experts agree the best mask is the one worn tightly and comfortably.
#4—Symptom screening continues to be important.
Monitoring your school community for symptoms of the virus will continue to assist administrators in crafting their mitigation strategies. Ensure you understand how different environments can impact the spread and make decisions accordingly.
#5—Case response is no longer one-size-fits-all.
The “decision trees” of the 2020–21 school year are no longer the standard in managing a positive case result. Field experts are encouraging case-by-case analysis to develop appropriate responses to a positive result.
#6—Consider amending your “sick leave” policy.
Enhance your school’s sick policies to include various circumstances that may arise. Consider and plan for new circumstances brought about by the mixture of vaccination levels—for example, if a vaccinated teacher is exposed to COVID-19 via an unvaccinated and positive preteen at home, what will the quarantine process look like?
Understand the potential results timeline for testing within an exposed segment of the population. Plan for a gap or break in testing for individuals who have recently had the virus and are therefore “safe” from a new case for 60–90 days. Decide what threshold will necessitate retesting within your community—for example, would you be comfortable with the risk of 90 days or is 60 more appropriate for your layered strategy?
Play it safe, but pushing the boundaries of flexibility will help return programming to normal.
All appropriate mitigation efforts should be used. But in an effort to return to a more normal school environment, your school should assess where you are comfortable introducing and increasing protocol flexibility.
As the 2021–22 school year continues, prevention efforts and risk mitigation strategies will continue to evolve. The increased presence of variants, the spectrum of mitigation tactics, and changing vaccination levels within populations will continue to impact all of our choices.