With public schools expected to return to in-person instruction on Sept. 27, the Guam Department of Education is beefing up health and safety measures for combating the spread of COVID-19 on school campuses.
“We want all students to have an opportunity to return safely for in-person learning. To do this, we need the community situation to come back under control, we need our layered safety measures to be strong, and we need an aggressive vaccination and testing strategy to keep schools open over the long term,” Superintendent Jon Fernandez said Thursday.
Increased physical distancing supports, such as heavy-duty canopies, chairs, tables, sneeze guards for student desks and barriers in the cafeteria, are just some of the safety measures students may see when they return to school.
GDOE took into account that schools are anticipated to reopen while the community remains in a high-risk COVID-19 situation, Fernandez said.
“We still are seeing about 150 cases a day on average and that puts us over the threshold for high risk based on (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance,” said Fernandez, who recognized that the island is now in a worse situation than it was three weeks ago, when in-person learning was suspended.
He provided assurance to Guam Education Board members Thursday, during a work session on school health and safety, that despite the increasing number of COVID-19-positive cases in the community, student and employee positive test results on the school front have not been widespread.
“There is no evidence of any spread within the school facilities; we do know those cases come to our doorstep,” Fernandez said.
Hoping to keep it that way, Fernandez said the governor’s executive order reopening schools requires the implementation of a screening testing plan and strategy for all schools - public, private and charter.
GDOE has been working in tandem with the governor and Department of Public Health and Social Services officials to be able to quickly identify any potential positives at schools.
“We would like to be able to test all employees and students who are symptomatic, who feel sick,” Fernandez said.
The approach goes beyond those who display symptoms.
“Even if you don’t have symptoms, we want to have in place a regular opportunity to test students and employees and we will do this on a regular basis to screen the schools for any positives,” Fernandez said.
Aligning testing approaches
Oct. 1 is the deadline to submit those plans to Public Health. But, in a meeting with the governor on Thursday, GDOE emphasized the need for Public Health to take the lead in the effort and share the parameters and the requirements needed.
"Otherwise, we are all going to end up with different testing approaches and I think it’s just going to be more confusing for the community,” Fernandez said.
The plan may involve school nurses and other authorized staff to administer COVID-19 tests at school sites.
“This is a possibility. In preparation, we have training already set up with DPHSS for school personnel to administer Abbott Binax testing. However, DPHSS is exploring the option of outsourcing, if needed,” Fernandez said.
Details such as testing frequency, testing results and who will be tested at the school sites will be shared when finalized, according to Fernandez.
He said that is the last piece GDOE must work out to ensure everything is in line with CDC and Public Health guidelines when schools reopen.
$5M grant for testing
The screening testing plan and strategy is funded by a $5 million grant received by Public Health.
Other efforts to mitigate the risk of transmission at schools continue with vaccination efforts geared toward employees.
GDOE is closer to complying with the governor's vaccination mandate. As of Sept 16, some 2,190 GDOE employees had been fully vaccinated, the department said.
Executive line agency employees were given until Sept. 24 to comply with the order or be tested weekly.
GDOE noted the possibility of vaccinations becoming available to students younger than 12 years old sometime in October or November. If that's the case, Fernandez said, the department would move to support vaccination efforts of this age group.
Busing protocols needed
Continuing to layer on protective measures, GDOE is working on protocols for the release of students after school and when they get on school buses.
"On the buses, I think the complaint was, when you get on the bus, there’s no real control. They get on and they’re sitting with no distancing and you’re hoping that they are wearing their face mask. I think there is a general concern as to how we can improve bus operations so we are in the midst of that work with the Department of Public Works," Fernandez said.
GDOE has submitted its school reopening plan to Public Health. However, Fernandez noted that no final approval has been received as the Guam Department of Public Works also must submit its bus transportation plan.
DPW is working on completing that plan, the department said. Fernandez said GDOE officials will work with DPW to understand what measures will be taken on school buses when schools reopen.