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Opinion | A plan for students to return safely to school, whenever that may be

In a few weeks, most students in Alabama are scheduled to return to school. With so few days left before students return, there are important questions that still need to be answered: Is it safe for kids to go back to school? What is the best way to keep students and faculty healthy? And what do we do if we start back to school and then have another spike or wave of COVID-19?

There’s no question that kids benefit from physically being in school and being around their classmates and teachers. Modern technology is wonderful and allows us to do things that 20 years ago we could only dream of doing. But it is still far better for kids to learn when they can physically be there with their teachers and get the one-on-one help they need without having to schedule a special zoom tutoring session.

In addition to the educational benefits, being physically present at school helps kids with their social development and to avoid problems like depression and loneliness. School is also the place where many kids get one or two healthy meals a day and a little exercise through P.E. classes and athletics.

The benefits of physically being in school are not in question. What is in question is whether the benefits of being in school outweigh the risks of COVID-19? And not just for students and their families but for teachers, support workers, administrators and their families, also.

I can’t tell state and local leaders what they should do. I would only advise them to listen to the advice of professional doctors, school nurses and educators.

What I can recommend to state and local leaders, though, are some ideas for how schools can safely reopen when the time comes, whether that’s in a few weeks or not for a few more months.

I would start by supporting a plan that was recently put forward by the Alabama Association of School Nurses.

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Funding for this plan is already available because of the CARES Act passed earlier this year by Congress. They have provided us with hundreds-of-millions of dollars to fight COVID-19, but at the end of the year we will have to return any of those dollars that we don’t use. So we may as well use them to, among other things, make our schools as safe and healthy as possible, starting with putting the School Nurses’ plan into action.

This plan was not only developed by healthcare professionals who are in our schools every single day and, essentially, is already paid for, but it also has the support of both Republicans and Democrats in the Alabama Senate.

The School Nurses’ plan has four main objectives: to hire 300 more school nurses so that every school in Alabama can have its own nurse; build 480-square-foot nursing facilities at every school so that children who show flu or COVID-19 symptoms can be separated from the other children; provide testing for up to 70,000 students every month; and equip every school with a thermal imaging system that can screen students and faculty for fever as they enter a school building.

Right now, there are many schools that have to share a nurse, meaning the school nurse can only be on campus for half a day, if that. And many schools’ nursing facilities don’t even have running water! This has created a situation where teachers and support staff often have to do double duty as nurses and receive training to administer emergency medical treatments to kids who have asthma attacks or allergic reactions.

And that brings up another reason why adopting the School Nurses’ plan is a good idea: Building these facilities, purchasing this equipment and hiring these nurses are all things that will be helpful beyond COVID-19 and the current healthcare crisis. These are things that can help combat the flu and other illnesses in the future.

Even if future funding cuts force us to let some of these school nurses go, we will at least still have the facilities and the thermal imaging systems.

In addition to these items, there are also companies like ProTek that provide technology that uses ultraviolet light to “sweep” a classroom overnight and kill 99 percent of viruses and bacteria in the air and on surfaces. This technology can kill microbes without doing any damage to human bodies.

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Whether school should start back in a few weeks is still in question. But whenever it does start back, state and local leaders have been presented with a good plan and good tools to keep schools safe.

Craig Ford is the owner of Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

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