How can schools safely social distance; particularly for students with special services and full-time aides?
How can schools safely social distance; particularly for students with special services and full-time aides?

By Cyndi Wright, CNF Program Manager and Special Education Advocate 

All parents have questions about school openings, and one of those questions is how can schools safely social distance.  Children with neurologic conditions often require special services, making social distancing challenging if not impossible.  Parents who determine their child needs to attend school to receive the services offered through their IEPs will want to ensure all possible steps are taken to allow their children to return to school safely.  The goal of this article is to help parents work with their school and medical teams to develop safe processes for their unique situation. 

Education Week released an article titled “The Socially Distanced School Day” which provided excellent graphics, like the two below to help visualize what social distancing looks like in a classroom or school busPlease note that these don’t address situations where students require teachers to be less than 6 feet away. 

Image published with permission from illustrator Stephanie Shafer/Education Week

The good news is some school districts successfully and safely offered extended school year (ESY) programs over the summer.  ESY services are not the same thing as summer school. They’re specialized instruction or related services that are part of a child’s IEP. The services are individualized to help each child maintain skills and not lose the progress made toward goals.  

These classrooms looked different than previous summers with fewer students than usual and more adults which often included the special education teacher and teaching assistants, known as paraprofessionals.  For example, instead of one teacher and 12 students, a classroom may have three staff and six students and some, if not all, instruction was offered outdoors. I spoke to staff from a few schools in Northern California who shared how their programs ran smoother than expected, and that students, staff and parents enjoyed the benefits of being back in school.   

Image published with permission from illustrator Stephanie Shafer/Education Week

Parents and staff described how, after the first few days, the arrival checkin process, including taking each child’s and staff’s temperature, caused minimal delay to the start of instruction.  Children were taught handwashing and distancing protocols in fun and dynamic ways which allowed for continued adherence to the processesTo the parents pleasant surprise, all the students – ages preschool to 8th grade – consistently wore their face coverings the entire day. 

 A Director of Special Education expressed the importance of staff working with the students that struggled with the mask initially to find alternate mask styles or to make fit adjustments.  Staff also focused on a positive behavior approach, praising students for wearing masks. Children had fun selecting masks that represented their personality or favorite colors and animals. 

As you prepare your child to return to school, keep a positive attitude and know it can be done safely and effectively.  Having a plan can give you additional confidence, so it is important to know the policies and procedures at your school. Parents, students and service providers may need to take additional precautions to think through the implications of their actions in advance. Below are some ideas found online, through parents and educators. 

Tips for going back to classes

  • To the extent possible, ensure the students understand the need to wash their hands and avoid touching their faces; and if they do touch their face, they should immediately wash their hands. This CDC page gives tips on Talking with children about Coronavirus Disease 2019
  • Students and staff should always wear a face covering. If it is important for your child to see a service provider’s face, or vice versause a clear face covering.  Face coverings should not be placed on children younger than two years old, anyone who has trouble breathing, or other medical exemption(Note: Clear face coverings are not face shields. CDC does not recommend use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings because of a lack of evidence of their effectiveness.)   
  • Practice wearing a mask at home before school starts. This CNF videoTeaching Children to Wear a Mask, may be helpful for students resistant to wearing a mask. 
  • Have additional cloth face coverings available for students, teachers, and staff in case a back-up cloth face covering is needed during the day and to facilitate every day washing of cloth face coverings. 
  • If working closely together, both students and staff need to wash hands before interacting with others. 
  • When staff can’t social distance or need to provide hands-on service, both student and staff should wear gloves and staff may want to consider wearing a gown or an oversized shirt they can take off before working with another student.   
  • Consider wearing long hair up off the collar in a ponytail or “updo” to prevent exposure to potentially contaminated surfaces. 
  • Have multiple changes of clothes available so if any fluids get on a child or service provider, they can change clothes and put contaminated clothes in a sealed plastic bag to be sent home and washed. 
  • Provide your child with their own sanitizing gel and teach them or request staff to use it after a hands-on service if they do not have access to a sink to wash their hands. 
  • When possibleask staff to provide services that require proximity outside or in a well-ventilated space. 
  • If possible, provide services without getting faceto-face.  For example, sit side by side looking forward, or have the service provider stand behind the student. 
  • If faceto-face service is needed, use a physical barrier, such as glass, plastic window or partition. 
  • If possible, limit the number of service providers interacting with a student each day. Explore having one specialist trained to provide multiple services, such as speech and occupational services. 
  • Schools can usvisual cues to help remind staff and students to wash hands, distance when possible and wear a mask. 
  • Students should be given their own equipment or tools whenever possible, but if items need to be shared between students, they need to be sanitized between each use. 
  • Parents and caregivers should not be allowed on campus or in classrooms.  All additional people increase the risk of exposure, so only school personnel should be allowed in these areas. 
  • When diapering a child, wash your hands and wash the child’s hands before you begin, and wear gloves.  After the change, wash the child’s hands and your hands (even if you were wearing gloves). 
  • Masks should not be worn wet.  If a child has excess saliva, it may be appropriate for the student to have an exemption to wearing the mask. If the mask gets wet for any reason, staff should wash their hands before and after removing the wet mask and putting a cleandry mask on the student. 
  • Wheelchair users need to regularly sanitize the chair, especially high touch areas like push rims rails on manual chairs. 
  • If students need to use nebulizers or aspirators while at school, school nurses should work with the family and the student’s medical providers to determine if the use of these devises is currently safe in schools.  The team should determine if alternate treatments are an option, and if not, they need to provide instructions for safe administration.  This may include providing treatment outside and away from other staff and children since the virus droplets may be transmitted in the air.  Anyone utilizing these tools may also want to consider protective eye covering such as goggles.  

We understand our kiddos need the services and social interactions school provides, and parents need the respite. On behalf of the CNF team, I wish you child a safe return to school, and we hope it is sooner than later.   If you have additional suggestions or ideas to help keep kids with special services safe upon return, please share them with us by emailing [email protected]


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