SOUTH COAST — Schools are making plans to protect students and staff from the ongoing pandemic while also keeping buildings clean before starting the new school year.
Though plans on how schools will start classes — either back in the classroom, all online, or a hybrid model — aren’t due to the state until Aug. 15, plans on how to keep people separate and safe are being established now.
At South Coast Education Service District, the buildings are closed to the general public unless an appointment is made. For those few who visit, and for staff back at work, some of these safety plans are already being used.
“We’re in the process of establishing cohorts and maintaining a stable cohort to slow the spread of the virus,” said Tenneal Wetherell, superintendent of South Coast ESD. “It’s similar to what school districts will do with students.”
A cohort is a small group of people allowed to be around each other, while maintaining six feet of distance. This small group will be screened for symptoms and asked where they have been in the last two weeks. Then their name will be added to the cohort list, making it easy to do contact tracing if someone tests positive for the new coronavirus.
“It’s similar to what school districts will do with students,” Wetherell said. “All students will be in a stable cohort and contact trace and log daily. Every district will have a different sized cohort, but the goal is to keep them as small as possible and to keep them from interacting with each other.”
In addition, every room has an occupancy rate or a number of people allowed inside. As people go from place to place throughout the day, they will enter stable cohorts. But “we work hard to not enter other cohorts and stay with our own,” Wetherell said.
To lessen cohort exposure, doors have signs saying “Stop — you’re entering a stable cohort.”
“We have developed mechanisms where we drop off and pick up items so you don’t have to enter a cohort,” Wetherell said, pointing to a box on the floor near a room. “Instead, we would call someone and say we’re dropping something or picking something up outside their door.”
Wetherell said being able to use Zoom and email will also lessen cohort exposure.
Room occupancy will be smaller than normal this year as well. Wetherell said occupancy is measured by 35 square feet minus all unusable space.
“So if you are sitting at a desk, your small section is allowed,” she said. “If a desk is being used to place or store items, you have to take it out of your space. When you look at a school district, they will assess the entire classroom and take out tables or chairs that are storage … Then they will divide by 35 to see how many can be in that space.”
She said for a classroom, occupancy could be anywhere from 15 to 17 people on average.
Cleaning between cohorts
When a cohort leaves a room, all items will be cleaned.
“That space has to be entirely cleaned between classes,” Wetherell said. “Each district will design their cleaning process plan, but it has to use appropriate cleanser, washing all touch points and disinfecting the area ….”
At South Coast ESD, since a lot of cleaning has to be done quickly between cohorts, maintenance staff will use an electrostatic sprayer. This is a portable device that disinfectant can be placed inside, where it becomes an ionized mist that is sprayed quickly in a room.
“It takes 15 minutes to dry and then a new cohort comes in,” Wetherell said. “It isn’t required, but is an extra level of safety to make sure to clean all the places you don’t expect people to touch.”
And when a new cohort enters a room, people will sign their names to a log, use hand sanitizer and select a pen from a “clean” pen jar. “Used” pens will be deposited in a different jar.
“The goal is to do all the things we can to keep our staff and students safe,” she said. “… We hope to be in a typical environment, but this is what we have to deal with at this time. As we go through the grieving process of what normally happens during school time, (we) put that aside and think clearly through cleaning our environment to keep students and staff safe and concentrate on that rather than belaboring what we can’t have.”
Wetherell is also working with the state on a Social Emotional Learning Project with school districts and the University of Oregon to identify 50 staff members on the South Coast who can be trained in social emotional trauma informed practice. This training is expected to be completed before school starts in order to help students who might be traumatized by what has happened due to the pandemic.
To concerned parents, Wetherell urged them to take a look at their school district’s protocols and how they feel about it.
“If the protocols and processes feel like they can get behind it, that will help them make a choice on sending their children back or to educate online,” she said.