Most schools, colleges and universities have transitioned to online learning because of the pandemic, and an enormous amount has been lost. Online learning does work fine in some contexts, particularly for adult learners and where relationships already exist between learners and educators. However, coursework and content are a small piece of what students gain from their education. Interactions with peers and faculty as well as extracurricular activities have immeasurable value. Many parents will not be able to return to work without their children in school, and many jobs depend on in-person education. For these reasons, we must plan and implement strategies to safely reopen in the fall. This depends on our public health infrastructure being prepared for this to occur. This situation may be dynamic for some time, as small outbreaks occur.

Structural changes can be made now, while the students are absent. Because SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is best removed from people’s hands via soap and water, schools should begin with aggressive strategies to install sinks in school lobbies, outside gymnasiums and cafeterias and at all entry points. Excellent technology already exists for motion-sensing handwashing and doors. Additional dispensers for hand sanitizer in classrooms and libraries should be installed.

Protocols for temperature screening at the start and midway point of schooldays should be developed now and shared widely via the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As point-of-care rapid testing becomes more available, this could be made available at school nurse offices and in college and university health centers. It is early to determine the need for masking in the fall, but more widespread availability and better understanding of optimal quality for cloth masks will help with mitigation if there are outbreaks. Protocols for periodic sanitizing of surfaces are needed, as well as strategies to reduce students’ physical contact. Lastly, schools will need to be prepared to close for two-week periods if a school outbreak occurs, possibly returning to online learning periodically if this occurs.

For residential colleges, additional planning is necessary. The availability of high-quality antibody testing may provide information on the percentage of the student body likely to be immune from prior exposure (with the understanding that there is still uncertainty about the duration of immunity). Rapid testing at health centers will be critical for identifying new cases and containing outbreaks. Residential schools may need to prepare “quarantine suites” to allow for isolation of new cases and possible observation and support for students who do not require hospitalization but should not be in a dormitory. Students who are more ill would be expected to go home if possible, yet those who are far from home will need a place to convalesce on campus.

Careful planning for faculty and support staff safety is needed. As COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for older people and those with less robust immune systems, some faculty may not feel comfortable returning to contact with students. Installing large screens in lecture halls, for example, could allow faculty to lecture to a group of students while isolating at home. This will require planning and investment such as updating cameras and microphones on faculty computers. Additional teaching assistants could support both students and faculty teaching remotely. This will be particularly important for carrying out laboratory, musical, dance and other programming that must have on-site instruction.

Uniform policies are needed for students to “opt out” and continue with fully online instruction if they or those they live with have health issues making risk of any exposure inadvisable. Infrastructure to allow students at home to join the classroom via synchronous online platforms is needed.

Planning has begun for a range of mitigation strategies allowing safe return to in-person instruction in the fall. I hope and assume that educators, students, parents, systems engineers, leaders, public health experts, college towns and communities will collaborate on other ideas and strategies. Even as much of the country is just emerging from the most difficult part of the pandemic, we must make these preparations now.


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