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Back to school in the era of COVID-19

July 16, 2020

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.

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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.

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