Health department guidelines for schools set rigorous standards for social distance, cleanliness

Health department guidance issued Wednesday for in-person instruction at San Francisco schools calls for a rigorous regime of handwashing, social...

Health department guidance issued Wednesday for in-person instruction at San Francisco schools calls for a rigorous regime of handwashing, social distancing, constant disinfecting, mandatory face coverings and outdoor classes whenever possible.

The Department of Public Health-released guidance details the logistical realities and challenges facing schools hoping to offer in-person teaching during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Drawing from the latest data and science, this guidance provides detailed advice on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 for the entire school community — students, families, teachers and staff,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, public health director. “If everyone does their part by wearing a face covering, practicing social distancing and washing their hands, that will contribute to our progress and to our hope that schools can reopen with modifications.”

The recommendations come as the San Francisco Unified School District is weighing how and when to return to campus and as educators are split on how safe it is to return. Schools are being urged to offer modifications for staff in high-risk groups, according to the guidelines.

The Board of Education will discuss working group and town hall findings on Tuesday, but a final decision may not be made until July 28 — just a couple of weeks before instruction is scheduled to begin on Aug. 17.

“As our district continues to plan for what learning will look like in the fall, we know this guidance will serve as a valuable tool in assessing the safest way for us to provide high-quality education and equitable support to each and every public school student in San Francisco,” said Superintendent Vincent Matthews in a statement.

Small class sizes are encouraged, but the department did not set a formal size limit. Keeping students in the same group while staggering break times, however, was highly recommended to reduce contact with others.

Elementary school students should remain with the same teacher, while block schedules with fewer subjects a day are recommended for middle- and high-school students. Younger children may be prioritized for in-person education, as they are at lower risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus and struggle more with online instruction.

Every person who enters a building must be screened for symptoms and those who have traveled outside the Bay Area may be asked to stay home for two weeks before returning. Testing is not required, but schools may develop a strategy with DPH to do so.

Coverings over the mouth and nose are required while on campus, except for those with a documented medical or behavioral constraint. They can be removed when exercising six feet apart or while eating, though the latter is recommended to be done in silence.

Once in class, hand washing and distancing will loom over the school day. Schools must come up with schedules for students to wash or sanitize at staggered times before and after eating, entering a classroom or touching shared equipment, including playgrounds equipment and keyboards.

It’s unclear how time-consuming the recommended precautions would be and how much instruction time would be left.

“It depends on how the schools implement them,” said Dr. Jeanne Lee of DPH on Wednesday.

It’s recommended to have every classroom and common area have sanitizer or a hand washing station upon entering, with posted signs reminding student to use them, and for schools to have a plan to ensure hygienic supplies don’t run out at any time.

Students should stay six feet apart, but if space is limited, three or more feet is allowed. Staff is encouraged to use video conferencing even while in the same building.

The use of outdoor space is recommended as much as possible, as well ensuring ventilation and open windows when inside. That won’t be feasible for some classrooms with windows that don’t open.

“I know that many parents, caregivers and kids can’t wait to get back to the routine and the supportive learning environment of our schools, but reopening depends on us and how successfully we are able to control the spread of COVID-19,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “The next several weeks are critical.”

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