When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reiterated last month—and again this month—that schools can reopen for in-person learning safely during the pandemic, with proper protocols in place, Wes Kanawyer was not surprised.
Kanawyer, the principal of Woodgate Intermediate School, in Waco, Texas, has been overseeing in-person instruction since schools in the state began reopening last August, with the majority of his students in the building five days a week. They’re accompanied by a staff (teachers, custodians, paraprofessionals, and secretaries) of about 100 adults.
And the number of students opting for in-person as opposed to remote learning continued to increase as the school year progressed. Last August, about 40 percent of the students opted to continue learning online. By January, 85 percent of Kanawyer’s students—about 704—were back in their seats in the building. (Texas schools must offer both in-person and remote learning options.)
Kanawyer thinks that’s because parents have grown more confident in the safety protocols the school and the district have put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on campuses.
The school has kept coronavirus cases to a minimum: To date, about 40 students have tested positive for the coronavirus. The last week of January, Woodgate’s student and staff coronavirus positivity rate was 0.38 percent. Three students were out with COVID-19, and all staff members were at school. On Feb. 2, only one Woodgate student was home because of the coronavirus. In contrast, the rolling seven-day average coronavirus positivity rate in Waco-McLennan County was 12 percent at the end of January. (In a twist, school’s first positive coronavirus case last year was a student enrolled in remote learning.)
“It’s a phenomenal rate,” said Kanawyer, who is in his second year at the campus.
Cases were more likely to arise from extracurriculars or activities that students are engaged in the evenings or on weekends than from what’s happening in the school building, he said.
That’s “because what we are doing in the building is so strategic, methodical, and effective,” Kanawyer said.
In-person learning is going so well, that the district is at the point where unless a student has a medical exemption (or has a relative at home who is in a high-risk category) he or she will have to return to the building if they are not doing well in their remote classes.
There is no substitute that's found on a screen for face-to-face instruction. It’s an alternative, absolutely. It’s not the same.”
Woodgate has managed to keep coronavirus transmissions low by deploying some of the common safety measures that public health experts have recommended:
- Masks at all time. Students wear masks in the building, except for specific instances: when they are eating or engaged in a strenuous activity (like sprints or on the basketball court) during gym or athletics. If a student doesn’t have a mask, the staff provides one. Students are frequently reminded of the mask protocol, with positive reinforcement from Kanawyer, who tells them that he’s proud of the way that they are complying and keeping each other safe. “If the research says mask is going to limit exposure, we want everyone to wear a mask,” he said.
- Distancing. While space is often a challenge in schools, Kanawyer and his staff do the best they can. Ideally, they aim to have six feet between students, but when that’s not possible, they still try to maintain distance. So that means space between students at breakfast, when they line up for class, while they are in the gym waiting to start activities, and in the hallways between periods. Students are about three feet apart at lunch, and the cafeteria has been expanded from the lunchroom and stage, to the lunchroom, stage, and hallways surrounding the office. The school also purchased 6-foot tables, and three students are seated per table. “We understand that the most vulnerable a child will be during an entire school day will be in the cafeteria— that’s when they are unmasked when they are consuming food,” he said. “Once they are done [eating], even if they are still at the table, we expect them to put the mask back on.”
- Clear, one-directional hallways: Hallways are one-way only, and students are told to “aim for the middle, and spread out” when going from one class to another. “They are kids,” Kanawyer said. “Even if we have one directional hallways, they still want to high-five each other and do handshakes. They are still kids, but we encourage them to space out.”
- No Lockers: Students carry all of their belongings with them, reducing opportunities for them to congregate and socialize. The practice has worked out so well that Kanawyer said it’s possible the school will continue with the no-locker policy when the pandemic is no longer a public health emergency.
- The “COVID Shuffle": Recognizing that students can feel stressed and overwhelmed by the new protocols and changes in routines, teachers and staff encourage them to stretch their legs between periods —with a little bit of levity. The school bought speakers and plays music in the hallways between periods. Students can request a specific song to play as they move between classes. Teachers observe from their doorways. There are still rules: no touching, masks on, and maintain distance between classmates.
- Sanitizing, sanitizing, sanitizing: Students’ hands are squirted with hand sanitizer on their way into their classrooms and on their way out. Teachers sanitize desks between groups of students. But they don’t just wipe down the surfaces—they actually follow what’s known as the “kill time": how long the surface must remain wet to kill the coronavirus. Custodial staff replenishes classroom sanitizer supply at the end of the school day. The sanitation protocols also extend to the nurse’s office and classrooms where positive cases and suspected cases have been identified. If there is a positive case at the nurse’s office or a higher frequency of suspected positive cases, the school has access to hospital-grade disinfectants that officials use to disinfect and sanitize the rooms.
- Limited bathroom use: Students are not allowed to use bathrooms during passing periods. They can get permission from teachers during class to use the bathroom. “That takes away some instructional time,” Kanawyer admits, “but the number one concern is safety … If you work at a school, [you] know that the restroom is where you socialize. We are trying to limit that time.”
- Capped classroom size: Core classes have a limit of 25 students per class to allow “reasonable spacing” between students, and also to reduce the burden on teachers who are doing double-duty with in-person and remote schooling. When practical, students are seated six feet apart, Kanawyer said. But that’s not always possible.
- No field trips.
- No-visitor policy.
- Education campaign: Before students returned to school, they received video and other messages on proper handwashing and other safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Lead science teachers Morgan Castillo and Linda Peebles conducted in-class demonstrations and other experiments to show how germs are spread. Kanawyer’s morning greetings are also peppered with periodic accolades for students on the great job they are doing and reminders that they should sanitize, cover their noses, and to keep moving in the hallways.
- Health screenings and other preventative measures: The school has limited the number of people who can visit the nurse’s office at a time. It’s also added a quarantine room for students who may have been exposed to the coronavirus or who have positive tests results. School nurse Ruth Wyrick conducts Covid-19 tests for students (at their parents’ request and with their approval) and staff in the clinic. Teachers answer screening questions every morning on their district-issued iPads on whether they have experienced a series of symptoms that may be indicative of a COVID-19 infection and whether they had been in contact with anyone whose lab tests confirmed a positive result in the previous 14 days. Those answers are directly sent to the district’s human resources department, which follows up with teachers promptly if they answer yes to any of the questions. As a condition for in-person reopening, parents had agreed to monitor their children daily for coronavirus symptoms to ensure that they’re not sending infected students to school. They’d also agreed to pick up students within an hour of getting a call from the school that their child may have been exposed to the coronavirus or had a confirmed COVID-19 positive test and would need to quarantine.
- Protective barriers: The school also has installed Plexiglas-like barriers around the attendance desk, registrar, the principal’s secretary and in the library. Similar barriers are used in special education classes and resource rooms, where teachers may need to work closely with students in small group settings. Safety is the number one priority, Kanawyer said, but he also knows that there’s effectiveness to “pulling a group of students aside and intervening, in a timely manner, as an extension of the lesson.”
Kanawyer credits Jeanie Johnson, the district’s assistant superintendent for administrative services, for putting together the safety protocols culled from a number of sources, from the local health departments, the state education agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the district has umbrella protocols, individual schools have some flexibility, a recognition that some tweaks may be necessary depending on the school’s grade levels.
Kanawyer says his district has gotten smarter during the semester. For example, when cases were rising in the high school that were tied to the volleyball team, the high school stopped volleyball instead of shutting down the entire school.
“If there is a hotspot, you hit that hotspot. You don’t make blanket decisions that affects everybody,” Kanawyer said.
And, while observing safety protocols, the school has even found ways to keep some of the normal activities— like choir, band, athletics, and “spirit days,” and it held an end-of-term concert to showcase students’ talents.
For Kanawyer, reopening for in-person learning has been about equity and access. Even among his students, he’s seen the academic gap widen during the spring shutdown.
Woodgate’s enrollment is 46 percent White, 28 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Black, and 5 percent Asian. Forty-six percent of the school’s students qualify for the federal free- and reduced-meals program.
“We have a moral obligation during this time —a moral imperative—to open for the sake of our students, especially the at-risk students,” Kanaywer said. “Because those at-risk students need the safety, they need the structure, they need the academic progress, and they need the support during this time—more than ever before.”
The push to reopen schools also comes amid the news that more transmissible variants of the virus are circulating in the population.
But Kanawyer is confident that the measures that the school has implemented will continue to be successful as mutations arise.
We have a moral obligation during this time—a moral imperative—to open for the sake of our students, especially the at-risk students.
“Everyone in this country knows that looking at a device screen is not the same as being in a physical classroom, where a loving teacher is going to support, instruct, correct, and redirect a child,” Kanawyer said. “There is no substitute that’s found on a screen for face-to-face instruction. It’s an alternative, absolutely. It’s not the same.”