Back to school in the era of COVID-19

Parents, teachers, and school administrators are grappling with how to open schools safely and responsibly in the fall. Just today (July 15th) the state of Kansas announced plans to delay school opening until after Labor Day. Here in Missouri, schools and colleges are working to decide what’s best for them. This article is the first of a two-part series dedicated to the difficult decisions schools and institutes of higher learning are making in Missouri.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) current guidance on opening institutions of higher learning stresses mask wearing and social distancing. The CDC reports most people who acquire COVID-19 are asymptomatic and won’t have the cough, chills, or muscle and joint aches associated with the virus. COVID-19 is mostly spread through the air. Respiratory droplets, infected with the virus are expelled through coughing, sneezing, and talking. Keeping your distance allows infected droplets to fall to the ground before infecting someone else. Wearing a mask decreases the chances that an asymptomatic person can spread the virus.

The CDC says students and instructors should isolate themselves for 14 days if they experience any COVID-19 symptoms, test positive for COVID-19, or have close contact with anyone who may be infected with COVID-19. The CDC urges college campuses to provide hand soap, paper towels, 60% alcohol hand sanitizer, and no touch trash cans that open automatically or with a foot pedal. Campuses should also have adequate signage, reminding everyone to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and how to wear masks properly.

For colleges and universities, the CDC defines three levels of risk for classroom and residential settings.

CDC Risk Guidelines for Opening Colleges and Universities

Risk LevelClassroomResidential (On-campus Housing
Lowest RiskFaculty and students engage in virtual-only learning options, activities, and events.Residence halls are closed, where feasible.
More RiskSmall in-person classes, activities, and events. Individuals remain spaced 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).Residence halls are open at lower capacity and shared spaces are closed (e.g., kitchens, common areas).
High RiskFull-sized in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.Residence halls are open at full capacity including shared spaces (e.g., kitchens, common areas).

Institutions are also encouraged to make changes to promote a healthier environment where applicable. In buildings, colleges and universities are encouraged to open as many windows and doors as possible and increase the amount of fresh air that comes into campus buildings. Facilities should increase the frequency of their disinfection routines and have a plan to disinfect all shared vehicles like buses and vans. In classrooms, students should sit at least six feet apart from each other and the instructor. The CDC recommends that colleges remove desks to accommodate for more space and to tape off seats in lecture halls so that students aren’t too close. Where food is served, colleges should provide grab-and-go meals or serve plated meals instead of buffet style meals.

Dr. Fengpeng Sun, assistant professor at University of Missouri Kansas City’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences says classes and labs will be very different in the fall. “The rule of thumb is the 25% classroom capacity. The instructors will decide which mode (in-person, online) they will use. To me, it is a very easy decision. I am teaching an intro lecture-based class, which has about 60-90 students typically. Considering the 25% rule, the campus does not have so many big rooms which are qualified. So it’ll be totally online synchronous, using Zoom.

Dr. Sun says labs will be very challenging. “(My lab class) is 30-student maximum capacity, so there is no way we could do the face-to-face format in the lab thus it is also online synchronous, using Zoom.”

Some research will be uninterrupted. “My students could do most of work via remote access, using their computers/laptops. My students and I have been using Zoom and Teams every two weeks or so and it works so far so good,” Dr. Sun says.

Right now, UMKC may have the most detailed back to school plan. Other large Missouri universities are in different stages of devising their back-to-school plans. Mizzou and St. Louis University are starting the fall semester early and ending it early. Missouri State is requiring masks and social distancing on campus. Washington University in St. Louis and Missouri S&T have committees working on their back-to-school plans. The University of Missouri in St. Louis isn’t yet announcing fall plans on its website.

Preparations and ProtocolsUMKCMizzouMissouri StateSt. Louis University
Start and End of SemesterStart: Aug. 24th End: Dec. 11thProposed Start: Aug. 12TH Proposed End: Nov. 10thStart: Aug. 17th End: Dec. 3rdStart: August 17th End: Nov. 24th
MasksMasks required for students, faculty, staff and visitorsMasks required for students, faculty, staff and visitorsMasks or cloth face coverings will be required in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained. They will also be required in specified, higher risk areas on campus. These areas will be clearly designated with signs indicating that a mask is required.The University will provide two washable cloth face masks to each student, faculty and staff member at the start of the semester. Masks are required in all public spaces.
CommunicationIndividuals with positive COVID-19 tests are required to notify UMKC. UMKC will notify students, faculty, and staff of possible locations that may have been exposed.Show Me renewal website will be updated with latest information.N/AN/A
PPEPPE will be available in special vending machines on the Volker and Medical campuses.Instructors will be provided with PPE for students who do not have their own, however students are required to bring their own PPE to campus.N/AStudents and faculty are issued two cloth masks for Fall semester.
Housing and DiningReconfigured residence rooms to enhance social distancing. Community spaces and kitchens will be locked for the beginning of the Fall Semester. Dining services reduced to 50% capacity and will offer grab-and-go meals.Restrooms in community-style residential halls will be cleaned twice daily during the week and once daily on weekends. Campus dining areas will not accept cash payment. Campus dining will provide ‘to-go’ options.Physical distancing encouraged in residence halls and furniture in common areas will be limited to encourage social distancing. Student ID, debit and credit cards are encouraged, cash payment is discouraged in dining areas. To-go meal options will be available. Seating will be reduced to Green County Health Dept. guidelines.N/A
Campus CleaningFollowing CDC sanitization protocolsFollowing CDC sanitization protocolsCleaning frequencies have been revised to place more time and emphasis on public, high-touch spacesSchool is increasing cleaning and disinfecting efforts in public areas across our campuses. Spray bottles with disinfecting solution, or sanitizing wipes, available for use by students, staff and faculty.
Physical DistancingClassrooms limited to 25% capacity. UMKC is expanding online offerings. Increased hybrid (online/in-person) classes. Instructors are urged to institute a flexible attendance policy.Seats will be shrink wrapped to ensure physical distance for students.Larger classes may be split between two rooms to allow for social distancing. Classes will be spread evenly throughout the day to reduce the number of students in classrooms and labs. More online classes and hybrid classes will be offered.SLU will to promote 6-feet of social distancing. School is reconfiguring spaces and developing guidance on how to accommodate this requirement, including classrooms, dining halls, meeting spaces and elevators.
Campus Safety ModificationsDesk shields in office areas. Social distancing reminders and floor tape in common areas. Lecture hall seats will be taped off, so each student has at least 6 feet of social distancing.COVID-19 safety information will be displayed on signage throughout campus.Desk shields in some campus office areas. COVID-19 safety information will be displayed on signage throughout campus.Installing plexiglass in some high-traffic, customer-facing areas as well, such as reception desks in places like the Simon Recreation Center.

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