Steve Crenshaw, Minneapolis Public Schools' transportation manager, demonstrates the electrostatic sprayer that drivers will use to sanitize their bus. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

After eleven months out of classrooms, some of the littlest Minneapolis Public Schools students will return to school buildings next week. Pre-K and kindergarten students who have chosen in-person learning are slated to return Monday; first and second graders, Wednesday; and third through fifth graders, February 22. About 60 percent of all MPS elementary students are planning to attend in person, while others stay in distance learning. In preparation, teachers and school leaders have been busy rearranging desks, placing social distance markers on floors and in hallways, installing plexiglass barriers and air filtration machines.

But the move comes amid high tensions with the teachers union over safety concerns. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has called on the district to delay reopening until all teachers have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. The union also wants the district to bargain with teachers on school safety measures including class size caps and six-foot social distancing, and allow educators to opt to work from home.

As reporters and photojournalists toured Pillsbury Elementary School with school administrators to see new safety measures on Wednesday, MFT members and supporters picketed outside, demanding safer conditions in schools.

So what will students and teachers see when they return to the classroom? And what’s changed behind the scenes to limit the spread of COVID-19? Do these safety measures really work? What does it actually take to be safe in schools? We took the tour and asked an expert.

Big picture, what are the most important things schools should be doing right now to reopen safely?

Beth Thielen, a physician-scientist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s department of pediatrics, points to a recent CDC study from Wood County, Wisconsin (the Wisconsin Rapids area) that showed low transmission in schools this fall—when certain protective measures were in place.

“They really laid out specifically the things that they put in place, and I think were able to demonstrate pretty convincingly that they had fairly low rates of transmission in the schools, despite having fairly high community spread in Wisconsin at that time,” she said.

Critics pushing to reopen schools said it bolstered their argument to get kids back in classrooms ASAP; those pushing for delay argued that rural schools can’t be compared to a large urban district.

But Thielen says the study illustrates not whether or not schools should open, but how schools can open safely. In this study, K-12 schools received grant funding to provide each student several masks with multiple cloth layers. The study found students complied with mask requirements more than 92 percent of the time. Students were grouped in cohorts of 11 to 20, kept in the same seating arrangement, and did not mix with other cohorts. Staff kept a distance of six feet from students if possible. And when students or staff felt sick or were exposed, they stayed home and quarantined.

Over the course of 13 weeks, seven of nearly 5,000 students had COVID-19 cases attributed to in-school transmission. There were no documented transmissions to teachers within the school. Thielen says this data matches a similar study from Germany, though community transmission there was low at that time. 

The question remains: Can a study like this apply to urban schools? “I think that remains to be seen,” Thielen said. “But if you’re able to take the same model, and keep children in small clusters, and space them appropriately, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t work on a larger scale as long as you still adhere to those practices.”

Those practices include making sure parents feel comfortable to keep their children home if they are sick, and reducing spread in the community. 

“I think it needs to be considered in terms of the benefits to children, too, in terms of their socioemotional development and not getting behind on their learning,” she said.

Class size and spacing

Desks spaced three feet apart in a first grade classroom at Pillsbury Elementary School, days before classrooms reopen. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

At Pillsbury Elementary, no in-person classroom will have more than 20 students, Principal Jessica Skowronek explained. That’s because teachers identified social distancing in classrooms as a top priority, she said. Teachers are spacing students’ desks three feet apart. They will stay six feet apart from students when they can and use a plexiglass barrier when that’s not possible.

While Pillsbury classrooms will have a maximum of 20 students, that’s not necessarily the case in every district school, Superintendent Ed Graff told Sahan Journal. He declined to give a maximum class number. Instead of a class size cap, as the teachers union has asked for, classes may have “targets” of 20 or 25, for example, depending on grade level. 

“The worry is, when you have a larger classroom, that if anybody gets infected in the classroom you’re potentially exposing all of the people in that group,” Thielen said. There are practices that can mitigate that risk, she said, like consistent seating arrangements to minimize the risk of spread through mingling. Masking is also key.

“I think if the children are wearing masks still, I think that will be protective even if they’re a little bit closer together,” she said. “If they’re really consistently wearing masks, I think that should help minimize the risk.”

Plexiglass barriers

Teachers will aim to keep six feet apart from students and other staff. When that’s not possible, they can use a portable plexiglass barrier. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Pillsbury’s main office has been outfitted with plexiglass barriers around the counters, and individual teachers have small barriers in their rooms to use when working in close proximity to students.

Those are helpful in blocking the transmission of droplets if a student coughs, Thielen says. But they’re less useful in blocking aerosols—smaller droplets that can remain in the air for minutes or hours.

“I think the shields are really more directed at those larger droplets and coughing directly onto someone, but won’t totally take away the risk of those smaller droplet transmissions,” Thielen said. Spacing and consistent masking reduce the risk of aerosol droplets, she added. 

While the barriers alone may not be the most protective measure, Thielen said, combining them with other protections can add up.

“If you stack up three or four different precautions and use them all consistently, they’re additive on top of each other to reduce the risk,” she said.

Air filtration

An air filtration machine in a first grade classroom at Pillsbury Elementary School. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Ventilation and air quality have become major areas of concern as Minnesota schools open this winter. Not every school has windows that open or up-to-date HVAC systems—and even if they do, it’s still February in Minnesota. The schools are scheduled to reopen in the middle of a cold snap. (Graff said it’s possible subzero temperatures could close schools Monday: “Inclement weather days are back.”)

Throughout the MPS system, air filtration machines will help improve air exchange rates. Graff said an assessment has been made of every classroom in MPS to determine air flow needs. Where the classroom did not meet the CDC’s ventilation guidelines, the district has supplied air filtration machines to meet or exceed the CDC’s standards.

Experts say that opening windows and adding stronger filters to the school’s existing ventilation system are the best ways to improve indoor air flow and quality. But if those items aren’t possible, they recommend portable air purifiers.

Thielen noted the Wisconsin study did not address ventilation or air filtration. “I think that is potentially significant,” she said. “The chance the virus will linger in the air is reduced if there are frequent air exchanges.”

Lunchtime

These tables in the center of the cafeteria will be removed. Children will sit in cohorts on either side of the lunchroom. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Masks will be required most of the time, but kids can’t wear masks while they’re eating. At Pillsbury, students will eat lunch in the cafeteria. Cohorts will eat together, spaced apart from other cohorts. Tables in the middle of the cafeteria have been removed to allow for greater spacing—which is possible since 60 percent of Pillsbury students are returning to in-person learning. Teachers will assist cafeteria staff in bringing meals to students at their tables.

In other schools, teachers have raised concerns that children will be eating unmasked in their classrooms.

Keeping children in the same cohorts for mealtime is important, Thielen said. If children are coming to a common lunchroom and not wearing masks, they could be exposed to children from other cohorts, or germs from a prior cohort, risking potential transmission.

“It seems like it would actually be preferable to have them staying in their classrooms, so they’re still near the same children they’re with during the day, and they’re in the same space and airspace,” she said. “But I also appreciate there’s logistics. The children have to get their food.”

Buses

The bus rows behind the driver are blocked off so the driver can remain six feet away from students. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Several rows of seats on the bus will be blocked off to keep the children six feet away from the driver. Kids will sit in assigned seats, wear masks, load the bus back to front, and exit in order. Bus windows, including the vent on top of the bus, will stay open. Drivers will spray down the buses regularly.

“It seems like they’re adhering to the basic principles,” Thielen said. “Think about it like coming into a grocery store: one of the things we’ve observed, data coming out of public health, is grocery stores have been pretty safe and not sites of major transmission. So I think the masking and short-term nature have played into that.”

Improving ventilation, keeping children in known locations, and having them wear masks helps too, she said.

The missing piece: trust

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers picketed outside Pillsbury Elementary School Wednesday as reporters arrived for a tour. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Despite all the science-based precautions the district is enacting, Thielen said, it seems to be missing a key element: support from teachers.

“I think we really need to have buy-in from our teachers, that they feel like they’re being looked after and we’re taking their health into account and keeping them safe,” she said.

Teachers need to feel supported, safe, and engaged in the decision-making process, she said.

“The fact that I’m hearing about pushback makes me feel like we’re not really meeting that emotional need of our teachers, that they’re not feeling safe,” she said. “Scientifically, I think there’s good evidence this could be done safely. But it will not be successful if we don’t have good buy-in from our teachers.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.