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Experts discuss what safety measures parents should look for in schools as COVID-19 concerns loom

The first day of classes for many Central Texas school districts draws near.

AUSTIN, Texas — The start of the new school year isn't far off.

Some districts have already opened their doors, like the Thrall Independent School District in Williamson County. It started classes on Monday.

RELATED: Thrall ISD students going back to class – in person

But the discussion about how to do that safely continues.

"I believe that we should not be going back in schools at all this semester," Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the labor union that represents Austin ISD teachers and employees, said.

He supports virtual learning until COVID-19 cases are on a downward trend because it is the only way to make sure students, teachers and staff are truly safe.

But if your kids can't stay at home, Zarifis said parents need to make sure school district leaders have a re-entry plan.

RELATED: As school year approaches, mask makers see challenging uptick in last-minute orders

"Ensure the safety, security and health of our students first and create an in-person experience that will simultaneously assure the safety [and] health of our students and workers along with instruction," he said. 

Dr. Nastasha Kathuria, an emergency medicine physician and global health specialist, said there are guidelines parents can watch out for to ensure that schools are following safety measures.

RELATED: More than 150 school employees have tested positive for COVID-19 in Central Texas

For instance, on school buses, Dr. Kathuria said masks should be worn.

"Every child should be wearing a mask and sitting separately without sharing seats on every row," she said.

Also, make sure the schools have mask and social distancing policies. Dr. Kathuria said starting those habits before school begins is key.

"Masking is critical everywhere right now, and school is no different. Obviously, there are some difficulties with younger children, with their compliance with wearing masks, but with children who are capable of wearing masks, try to help your kids learn now before school starts to get used to it. This is critical. This is the most important thing that can be done to prevent the spread of this virus," Dr. Kathuria said.  

RELATED: Austin ISD votes to push back start date after listening to parents, teachers for 6 hours

She also said to check if the district has a self-isolation policy when someone gets sick. 

"If any child, any teacher, any staff member of a school falls sick or has any symptoms that could possibly be COVID-19, they need to stay home for 10 days from when the symptoms started, with or without a test result, because there is a false negative with some of these tests," Dr. Kathuria said.

Experts said students should get recess time, especially in schools with older HVAC systems.

Other guidelines to look out for include staggering lunchtimes and eating in the classroom. 

But Dr. Kathuria warns: If you have anyone high risk or elderly in your home, you need to think twice before sending your kids to school. She said COVID-19 cases remain high, and we are not out of the woods just yet.