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(The Center Square) – Restricting group sizes and physical contact, monitoring symptoms, and wearing face coverings will be important to mitigate health risks if schools reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, state education and health officials say.

The Louisiana Department of Education, in partnership with the Louisiana Department of Health and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Resilient Louisiana Commission, on Thursday released guidance for how schools could reopen for the 2020-2021 academic year.

While each district ultimately will decide how schools operate, officials say the guidelines offer best practices that encourage districts to prepare for three possible reopening scenarios: a traditional classroom arrangement, distance/remote learning, or a hybrid of the two. The guidelines explain how health requirements could change based on the three reopening phases and offer an outline for how to respond to a COVID-19 positive or presumptive positive case on campus.

"We developed this guidance by engaging experts on the virus – public health officials – and experts on what this guidance looks like when put into practice – school leaders and educators," State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said. "We understand next year will be a new challenge for all of us as we educate through COVID-19.”

Louisiana, which closed school campuses in mid-March through the end of the academic year, currently is in phase two of the White House blueprint for lifting restrictions meant to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. After two months of declines, the United States set a record Wednesday for new cases reported in a single day, and it is unclear how the public health picture will look when students are set to return to school in the fall.

Edwards announced Monday that Louisiana is not ready to further loosen restrictions because it does not meet the federal criteria for doing so. Some Republican lawmakers want to move forward, citing the economic damage the restrictions have caused.

The education department guidelines recommend limiting group sizes to 10 if the state has pulled back to phase one, 25 if in phase two and 50 in phase three. Younger students should be kept in static groups, the guidelines suggest, while the makeup of groups of older students who are able to maintain physical distance can change.

Students’ temperatures should be checked when they arrive on campus, and an area to isolate sick students until they can return home should be established, officials say. That room should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after the student leaves, and any “high-touch” service should be cleaned multiple times through the day.

School bus capacity under the guidelines would range from 25 to 75 percent, depending on the phase. Contact sports would not be permitted in the first two phases but would be in phase three within defined groups.

The guidelines recommend allowing additional time for transitions between classes, staggering class changes, and designating lanes in the hallways as “flow paths” to keep students separated and minimizing crowding.

Face coverings are recommended for adults and students third grade and up, especially during arrival, dismissal and class transitions. Masks should not be worn by people with breathing problems, officials said.

The new guidelines can be read here. Additional resources, including information about distance learning, is available here.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.