Authors: The School Speech Therapist

Jun 17, 2020 byTeresa Sadowski MA CCC-SLP

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***I actually wrote this article about two weeks ago and did not get a chance to post it. Since then the powers that be are hinting at how Covid will effect summer services and school next fall but nothing seems definite yet.

Just about every news outlet is starting to do stories on what school is going to look like in the fall. The buzz word “new normal” seems to be the current catch all phrase starting to surpass   “we’re all in this together but apart” (another phrase which is being use to calm people fears, face it we are alone in this and most of us are looking out for number one.  But that is an article for another day).  All kinds of crazy things are mentioned in news trailers and in on line articles.  I just hope the powers that be use some common sense when deciding on what procedures will be used in schools.  After over 30 years working in the schools and what I’ve heard about and observed the past 3 months I can tell you this….students need to get back to normal not a so called new normal.  It’s the schools, administration and adults around them that will have to make changes.  

During this time of shut down there is no doubt that student’s have suffered.  Most schools and teachers have done their very best but few had the immediate means and the skills needed to truly implement on line learning.  Add in a layer where some many parents do not have the skills, desire, time or programming to help their child. Add in another layer where students may not have the technology needed for successful on line learning and on line learning clearly can’t work for many.  Those are just surface concerns.  Some student’s and parents need the structure of school to be successful.  For many years to come scholars will be debating whether on line learning vs. paper packets vs. no school at all made a difference.  They will be looking at gaps in development, studying skill levels of parent and skill level of teachers to teach remotely.  I see many theses and many dissertations coming out of this.

So how do we get students back to a normal school experience?  Keep in mind my suggestions are based on a situation where there is no active spread of covid 19.  But let’s face it kids have picked up various bugs (and literally bugs) from other kids for years and they will continue to do so.  It’s not bad to catch a few germs and some will argue it is actually a good thing.  We can’t keep kids clean and tidy all day if we don’t want them to grow up with a complex and a poor immune system. Most kids like to play and get dirty and some will tell us that dirt and germs are a good thing.  

How clean are schools?

In most schools I’ve worked in schools get a deep clean over the summer and maybe during longer breaks but other than that it is a daily surface clean or a spot clean.  When only a couple of people are hired to clean a whole school in a 4-hour window, just how good is the school cleaned?  I’ve also questioned the types of products most schools use.  I think in the past schools usually have purchased the cheapest products and water down the product.  If there isn’t a head custodian overseeing cleaning in the district, principals need to take ownership of cleaning schools and frankly they miss so much.  I worked in one school where the doormats did not get cleaned for 2 years and that was just one of many things that were not properly cleaned. 

School Bathrooms

School bathrooms usually only get the once over at night, toilets and sinks.  Boy’s rooms often smell like urine, stall walls and locks are hardly ever touched with a rag.  Basically, school bathrooms need to be cleaned thoroughly several times during the day.  Think of how many people (little ones without the best habits) are using a single bathroom on a daily basis.  Deep cleaning at night with a strong bleach or other equivalent product is a must.  Students may need some instruction on good bathroom habits and expected behavior in a public bathroom.  Just about any time a little one uses a public bathroom outside of school they are accompanied by an adult.  We assume they know what do but many don’t.  Perhaps buying some paper towels that actually absorb might help too.

The Nurses Office

Usually a pretty clean place but again it does depend on the nurse.  There should be standards and should be disinfected/cleaned at some point during the day.  Sometimes some really sick kids spend hours in there.  The biggest problem isn’t with the nurse’s office per say it is with parents sending their kids to school knowing they are sick.  That happens a lot more than you think.  While I don’t think you would be able to punish/fine the parent, they should be expected to show up ASAP.  I have noted that with the rigors of common core, parents and students are often afraid to miss school because they will fall behind.  Not sure what the solution is there but it should be easier to catch up if you are out sick.  Schools need to try and create a separate place for sick student’s to be observed until their parents show up.  Nurses have a really tough job determining which students are really sick and which students want or need attention.  Nurses need to get parents and counselors involved if they suspect students are coming to them often for attention.

The Cafeteria

Frankly I’d be more concern about the lousy food with poor nutritional value served in most school cafeterias than catching something.  However school cafeterias are pretty gross.  Not so much the food prep area (I say food prep area because few schools actually cook food anymore) but I am sure the food prep area could use a better cleaning at night.  The cafeterias themselves are pretty gross, often dirty and loud.  Kids usually have 10-15 minutes to shove in their food and move on.  Spot cleaned at best during lunchtime, surfaced cleaned after lunchtime.  I usually see rags in a bucket used to clean seats and tables between grades.  Children often have to bring their coats with them and guess where they end up…on the dirty floor.  With that said, lunch boxes often spend a lot of time on the floor during the day.  So many kids come to school with lunch boxes that are filthy inside and out.  School cafeterias have functioned like this for my entire life but there has to be room for improvement.

The Gym

Students spend a lot of time in gym class and sitting on the gym floor for various assemblies.  At best, they gym floor is dry dusted once in a great while.  In most places, kids are wearing their street shoes into gym class.  I remember having to change into our sneakers before gym class. My gym teacher probably did that for two reasons, that way we always had sneakers and it also kept the gym a little cleaner.  Public schools can’t expect kids to keep shoes at school anymore and a lot of students couldn’t change shoes efficiently these days.  Gyms need to be cleaned more often and better ventilated.  I’m going into brand new schools or new gyms where they are basically sweat boxes with a single door for ventilation.  While challenging, wood floors have to be sanitized at some point and dirt needs to be cleaned up.

The Classroom

Anyone who thinks you can social distance in a classroom is living in a dream world.  However, this is an opportunity to advocate for decreased classroom size.  If you ask students to wear a mask all day, you’ll probably create a bigger germ problem than you have in the classrooms now.  All I envision is cloth masks that never get washed, touched constantly, decreased attention and in the end the masks will up on the floor half the time. If you put up desk separators they will fall down all the time, kids will miss a lot of instruction, naughty behaviors will emerge from behind the curtain and quiet kids will be missed.

Water bottles are right up there with lunchboxes in terms of how gross they are.  Some kids chomp on them all day, some are rarely washed and most end up on the floor at some point.  Water bottles came into favor after the H1N1 flu closed down the remaining working fountains in schools.  Parents were worried that their child was somehow going to dehydrate severely at school and schools went along with it.  Water bottles wouldn’t be so bad if they were used with some polite expectations and kept in a clean place.  Water filling stations are the new drinking fountains.  Sounds like a good idea, until you actually watch the students use the filling station.  Most put the lip of their bottle up to where the water comes out, touching the spigot. Again this is where some education is in order or schools will have to monitor usage.

Kids who come to school a little on the dirty side might need a bit of help.  These kids are usually ignored in school either because adults don’t want to put them down or adults just don’t want to get involved. Reality is these kids need some discrete help by either talking to them, taking them to the nurse or counselor for help or by helping them get cleaned up.  Keep in mind there are kids who are very clean when they leave in the morning and show up to school dirty and kids who are living in not so great surroundings. Schools need to learn to tell the differences and have a consistent plan to help these students.  Certain kids are also going to show up clean when they get to school and look really grubby when they leave school.  It is just their nature.

There are sinks in some schools and hand washing is better than sanitizing.  However, the sinks are usually filthy and like bathrooms need to be cleaned several times per day.  Again kids need to be taught how to use soap and wash hands properly.

Desks and tabletops should be cleaned at the end of the day.  Dirty chairs should not sit on top of desks.  Classrooms should be decluttered so make cleaning at night easier. Doorknobs should be wiped down. However, using an ineffective cleaner and those brown paper towels will do nothing.  Things like books and keyboards will be germy, that is a fact of life.  Unless you want to put kids in a bubble and end up with weakened immune systems they have to take some risks.

Heating systems and ventilation systems need to be repaired and updated.  Here in the northeast the first few days in September and the last days in June (well not this year) are usually hot as blazes.  Basically, turning schools into hot stinky messes. In the winter I’ve walked into classrooms where rooms were so hot the windows were open.  Those classes were like being in a petri dish.  Then the classroom next door was so cold the kids noses were red.

My biggest fear

My biggest fear is that those that work closely with kids in schools will not be able to touch kids at all. I mean things like holding a little ones hand, comforting a child with a hug, giving high fives for good work, giving a pat on a back, guiding a child down the hall, buddy hugs or even a well deserved/needed hug.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an unexpected hug from a child and if I can’t hug back or have to stop a hug, I will be heart broken.  

Here is what I expect will happen

Schools all over the country will put unrealistic and absurd guidelines in place.  These guidelines will be severe and a knee jerk reaction to the current situation.  Most will be based on the personal fears of the administration, pandering to parents or what other schools are doing.  Not on evidence based science or even common sense.

I think these guidelines will fade quickly over a short period of time, even the guidelines that do make sense.  Schools will be cleaned properly for a few months and then they will fall back to their old ways.  Principals will tout how clean their schools are citing the bathrooms or cafeterias but the rest of the building will be neglected.  Schools will buy the effective more expensive cleaners and other supplies but will be taken away the next budget cycle.  They will pay for extra custodians for a year or so then the budget will cut them out too.

So I sound cynical but I am basing this on recent history.  Every time there is a school shooting incident administrations, teachers and parents jump on the bandwagon about school safety.  There is always a lot of training and lot of plans.  Basically, these become band-aid measures and procedures put into place, most not permanent.  Within a few months, we find doors left propped open or unlocked, strangers not being questioned as they walk through the building, broken camera systems, communication systems not being updated as promised and people being buzzed in when they really don’t know who they are.   

There is going to be a lot of fall out when the shut down is over.  Parents who are not happy will address school boards; school boards will blame administrators who will in turn point fingers at principals.  Principals will then throw teachers under the bus. Right now every realizes that the shutdown is nothing that could have been planned for and that everyone is doing the best they can with limited knowledge working in technology and having to recreate their content and materials to fit on line learning.  6 months from now people will forget the challenges and ask why schools couldn’t do a better job.  I predict there will be a lot of changes with administrative staff because of the finger pointing.  However, the administration and principals will be looking for smaller schools and districts to work for.

Basically schools need to improve the cleanliness of buildings, help/encourage basic hygiene for student and parents, budget for increase custodial staff/cleaning supplies and fix heating/ventilation systems. This may not solve all the issues but it is something to think about.

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