Last week, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) released “Strong Start 2020”, a resource document with guidelines for K-12 public and private schools across the state about how to re-open as safely as possible this fall. The guidelines were created in conjunction with the Louisiana Department of Health and are structured around the different phases of re-opening that the state can progress through in response to the COVID pandemic. The document includes a list of best practices and a re-opening checklist as resources for schools.
Importantly, the document offers recommended guidance to schools about how to re-open, but does not include requirements schools must follow. Based on the document, it is clear that districts and schools will have a great deal of autonomy in what guidance they actually follow and what precautions they take. To this point, in the introduction to the plan, new state LDOE Superintendent Cade Brumley writes that, “This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We know there are vast differences between schools, systems, and communities across the state. It’s our responsibility to develop guidance in conjunction with public health officials, then allow local leadership to make decisions based on the unique needs in their community.” This means that at this time, the LDOE is not intending to mandate schools follow certain protocols, which mirrors the bottom-up approach of the federal government to COVID, in which cities and states have all enacted a wide array of responses and restrictions (or lack thereof) to the crisis.
The key points from Strong Start 2020 are that it urges schools to:
- practice social distancing whenever possible;
- keep children in small groups whenever possible;
- monitor the health of staff and students for signs of COVID, such as fevers or coughs;
- and ensure frequent cleaning and hand washing.
But it also acknowledges that re-opening schools in any manner will also come with inherent risks. Due to this, it states that schools should plan to have students and teachers who contract COVID during the school year. Once this inevitably occurs, Strong Start 2020 recommends that schools ensure those who are sick, as well as those who schools deem as “close contacts” of the sick, are required to stay home and monitor their symptoms for 14 days, and to respond with communication to the school community. Ultimately, though, the documents states that decisions about whether to close a school in response to individual or widespread cases of COVID will be made school leadership, in partnership with local health experts, rather than from the state level.
The plan outlines recommended limits on the number of students in classes on buses for each phase of re-opening. It also differentiates in its recommendations for social distancing based on the age of students, with older students to maintain at least six feet of separation whenever possible. It recommends that schools also limit contact sports.
Again, these are recommendations and not requirements, and it will be important to follow what guidance schools both in New Orleans and across the state actually enact this fall.