The moment of truth is now upon the Guam Department of Education as it opens public schools this week with the COVID-19 surge still wreaking havoc on the community.
For GDOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez and the majority of the Guam Education Board, there is no choice but to move forward to ensure that student learning continues despite the objections and calls for the postponement of the reopening.
Fernandez said they are as ready and confident as they will ever be about the safety measures that GDOE adopted to protect students and GDOE staff from the rampaging virus.
Describing GDOE’s strategy as a ‘layered’ COVID mitigation approach, Fernandez said their approach uses multiple safety measures at multiple points in the school system, from sanitation to COVID mitigation equipment, to offer the best possible protection for everybody in the public schools.
“We have adopted a layered mitigation approach, meaning we’re using multiple protection or safety strategies to protect our students from master cleaning to sanitizing all equipment,” Fernandez said.
Moreover, the additional time that GDOE had (the reopening was originally set for Sept. 20) enabled the department to begin the installation of table plexiglass dividers.
“We’re also anticipating the arrival of outdoor canopies, tables, and chairs. The cafeteria dividers are critical. That was a key concern of Public Health because that is pretty much the only area where masks are removed in order for kids to eat. So the additional time has helped us to receive and install the dividers at our schools,” Fernandez said.
According to Fernandez, the only thing that’s still pending are the HEPA filters, which faced a snag due to a procurement protest.
“That process has since been canceled so that we can reissue the solicitation and hopefully it goes smoother this time. We wanted to avoid getting stuck in the protest process,” Fernandez said.
The public schools will be opening in two cohorts to reduce the number of individuals on campus and to assist in maximizing physical distancing, while the community rate of COVID transmission risk is at its current high level.
“We intend the cohorts to be a temporary interim measure until students can safely resume a full schedule of instruction,” Fernandez said.
As required by the Department of Public Health and Social Services, GDOE schools will conduct daily screening of symptoms among students, teachers, and staff to identify those who may be contagious so that measures, such as testing for COVID-19, can be taken to prevent further transmission.
Schools shall also adopt a testing strategy that provides testing on a regular basis (especially to those individuals who are not fully vaccinated) and where results are reported rapidly. Furthermore, screening testing will be promoted to those students, teachers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated.
As part of this screening testing plan, schools shall set a goal to test 10 percent of their population every other week within 90 days of implementation of their testing plan.
“We feel very strongly that the cohort approach, the multiple safety measures that are in place for now, and the constant monitoring …. will keep our kids safe. But again, we will continue to monitor the situation so that if there is a need, we can make adjustments. We need to always be flexible, knowing that we don’t know everything there is to know about the situation,” Fernandez said.
The GDOE Superintendent wants to thank the Guam Education Board, the parents, the school committees, and the various stakeholders for continuing to meet with GDOE and provide guidance and input.
“All of our stakeholders really provided a lot of input along the way to get us to where we are today,” Fernandez said.