Whether to reopen school buildings for the 2020–2021 school year is one of the most consequential and complex decisions many education leaders will ever have to make. While the benefits of reopening for students, families, and communities are clear, leaders must also take into account the health risks to school personnel and students’ families, as well as the practicality and cost of the mitigation strategies that will be needed to operate safely. These decisions are made more difficult by the lack of definitive evidence about transmission in children or about which mitigation measures are most effective for limiting the spread of the virus in schools.
Recognizing these challenges and the difficult choices faced by education leaders, the committee offers a set of eight recommendations intended both to provide guidance as leaders make these choices and to serve as a call to action for other stakeholders to provide support for educators in this difficult time. We also offer a ninth recommendation identifying four areas of research we believe need urgent attention so that decision-makers can soon have the evidence base they need for making more informed choices.
Recommendation 1: The Decision to Reopen
Districts should weigh the relative health risks of reopening against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction in Fall 2020. Given the importance of in-person interaction for learning and development, districts should prioritize reopening with an emphasis on providing full-time, in-person instruction in grades K–5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction.
A complex set of risks and trade-offs surrounds decisions about reopening school buildings. Reopening schools for in-person learning will necessarily bring a number of risks related to health and safety. Not reopening schools, however, also carries a number of risks that need to be considered. Distance learning, while an essential tool for ensuring continuity of instruction when school buildings are closed, cannot fully take the place of in-person interaction. Moreover, disparities in access to reliable Internet and appropriate electronic devices could compound already existing educational inequities. The risks of not having face-to-face learning are especially high for young children, who may suffer long-term consequences academically if they fall behind in the early grades.
Recommendation 2: Precautions for Reopening
To reopen during the pandemic, schools and districts should provide surgical masks for all teachers and staff, as well as supplies for effective hand hygiene for all people who enter school buildings.
In order to open for in-person learning, schools and districts will need to leverage the strengths and talents of teachers and school staff by attending to their health and safety concerns. As discussed in Chapter 3, a significant portion of the teacher workforce is over the age of 65, signaling that these individuals are both at increased risk related to COVID-19, and eligible for retirement. This reality, combined with the fact that many schools and districts may choose to limit interaction among students by assigning students to smaller cohorts or pods, poses a serious human capital challenge for education stakeholders to consider. To make returning to work a safe and desirable option, stakeholders will need to take the health and safety concerns of teachers and staff seriously.
Recommendation 3: Partnerships Between School Districts and Public Health Officials
Local public health officials should partner with districts to
- assess the readiness of school facilities to ensure that they meet the minimum health and safety standards necessary to support COVID-19 mitigation strategies;
- consult on proposed plans for mitigating the spread of COVID-19;
- develop a protocol for monitoring data on the virus in order to (a) track community spread and (b) make decisions about changes to the mitigation strategies in place in schools and when future full school closures might be necessary;
- participate in shared decision-making about when it is necessary to initiate closure of schools for in-person learning; and
- design and deliver COVID-19–related prevention and health promotion training to staff, community, and students.
Not only will decisions related to when and how to reopen schools for in-person learning need to reflect a school district’s priorities and constraints, but also plans for reopening will need to include careful monitoring of the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. In light of the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding what is known about COVID-19, the committee emphasizes that it is unreasonable to expect school districts to have the requisite in-house public health expertise to make ongoing decisions about reopening and operating schools.
Recommendation 4: Access to Public Health Expertise
States should ensure that, in portions of the state where public health offices are short staffed or lack personnel with expertise in infectious disease, districts have access to the ongoing support from public health officials that is needed to monitor and maintain the health of students and staff.
Not all school districts will be able to immediately access the appropriate public health expertise locally. In many parts of the United States, especially rural areas, public health offices may be short staffed or may lack staff with deep expertise in infectious disease. Yet public health expertise is necessary for making the myriad ongoing decisions described in this report, and it is incumbent upon states to ensure that this need is addressed.
Recommendation 5: Decision-Making Coalitions
State and local decision-makers and education leaders should develop a mechanism, such as a local task force, that allows for input from representatives of school staff, families, local health officials, and other community interests to inform decisions related to reopening schools. Such a cross-sector task force should
- determine educational priorities and community values related to opening schools;
- be explicit about financial, staffing, and facilities-related constraints;
- determine a plan for informing ongoing decisions about schools;
- establish a plan for communication; and
- liaise with communities to advocate for needed resources.
While public health expertise is a critical component of making smart decisions related to reopening schools, it is just one perspective necessary for outlining a plan that reflects the needs and priorities of a community. As discussed in Chapter 4, many different stakeholders are invested in K–12
education. In order to approach reopening schools in ways that reflect a community’s collective values, it is critical that state and local decision makers engage a range of different constituencies in the process of delineating a plan for reopening schools and monitoring their ongoing safety.
Recommendation 6: Equity in Reopening
In developing plans for reopening schools and implementing mitigation strategies, districts should take into account existing disparities within and across schools. Across schools, plans need to address disparities in school facilities, staffing shortages, overcrowding, and remote learning infrastructures. Within schools, plans should address disparities in resources for students and families. These issues might include access to technology, health care services, ability to provide masks for students, and other considerations.
As this report discusses throughout, decisions around reopening schools are occurring in the context of a deeply inequitable public school system. Unless school districts directly address equity in their planning process, reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly exacerbate existing disparities in educational access and outcomes. As part of the planning process, districts will need to understand how existing inequities (in school facilities, staffing, access to resources, etc.) are likely to interact with the lived realities of communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19, so that the plans can identify where additional resources or special considerations are necessary.
Recommendation 7: Addressing Financial Burdens for Schools and Districts
Schools will not be able to take on the entire financial burden of implementing the mitigation strategies. Federal and state governments should provide significant resources to districts and schools to enable them to implement the suite of measures required to maintain individual and community health and allow schools to remain open. Under-resourced districts with aging facilities in poor condition will need additional financial support to bring facilities to basic health and safety standards. In addition, state departments of education should not penalize schools by withholding statewide school funding formula monies for student absences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The various strategies for mitigating the transmission of COVID-19 reviewed in Chapter 5 will be the primary tools used by schools to support the health of their staff and students as they reopen school buildings. This list of strategies is long and complex, and implementing them will require a substantial investment of financial and human capital resources. These considerable expenditures are coming at a time when many districts are
looking at uncertain financial futures as a result of the pandemic. While the size of the funding shortfall will depend on how well resourced a school district is, many districts will be unable to afford implementing the entire suite of mitigation measures, potentially leaving students and staff in those districts at greater risk of infection. In the absence of substantial financial support from the federal government and state governments, it is likely that the communities most impacted by COVID-19 will see even worse health outcomes in the wake of reopening schools.
As noted throughout this report, districts within the same state are likely to have significantly different resources (financial, human capital, etc.) to put toward reopening schools. States will need to have a role in ensuring an equitable distribution of resources so that districts can implement the measures required for a strategic reopening in their local contexts. Further, in order to equitably support districts and schools, states should not withhold funds or otherwise penalize districts if families choose remote or distance learning options for their children in Fall 2020.
Recommendation 8: High-Priority Mitigation Strategies
Based on what is currently known about the spread of COVID-19, districts should prioritize mask wearing, providing healthy hand hygiene solutions, physical distancing, and limiting large gatherings. Cleaning, ventilation, and air filtration are also important, but attending to those strategies alone will not sufficiently lower the risk of transmission. Creating small cohorts of students is another promising strategy.
Although it is impossible to eliminate the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in schools completely, the mitigation strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and described in this report are showing promise for reducing transmission when implemented effectively. The lack of evidence about the relative effectiveness of different strategies, especially given the considerable costs involved in implementing them all, is a challenge for districts and schools, which are left largely on their own to prioritize which of the mitigation strategies to implement and how to make judgments about any necessary modifications due to practical constraints. The committee drew on its collective expertise and the limited available evidence to identify a few mitigation strategies that appear to show promise for districts looking to leverage limited resources.
Recommendation 9: Urgent Research
The research community should immediately conduct research that will provide the evidence needed to make informed decisions about school reopening and safe operation. The most urgent areas for inquiry are
- children and transmission of COVID-19,
- the role of reopening schools in contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in communities,
- the role of airborne transmission of COVID-19, and
- the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.
Children and Transmission of COVID-19
The fact that as of this writing there was no scientific consensus on the role of children in transmitting COVID-19—to one another or to adults—poses a serious challenge for decision-makers. Although it is known that children are less likely both to contract COVID-19 and to experience significant consequences if they do, it is simply impossible to ascertain how likely children are to transmit the disease to school staff or adults at home. Clarity on this point would offer much-needed guidance for decision-makers regarding the necessity of various mitigation measures, and could potentially alleviate considerable anxiety for adults in proximity to students slated to attend school in person. Therefore, research is urgently needed to help understand the role of children in transmitting COVID-19.
The Role of Reopening Schools in Contributing to the Spread of COVID-19 in Communities
In addition to uncertainty around the role of children in transmitting COVID-19, much of the anxiety around reopening schools relates to how schools as a large gathering place for individuals will factor into the spread of COVID-19 in a community. To date, research on this question has produced mixed results (Hsiang et al., 2020). Clarity in this area could provide further insight into what kinds of mitigation strategies might be of the highest priority for schools. As a result, research is urgently needed that looks specifically at how the reopening of schools matters (or does not) for the prevalence of COVID-19.
The Role of Airborne Transmission of COVID-19
In the process of writing this report, the committee repeatedly returned to conversations around the role of airborne transmission of COVID-19. As described in Chapter 3, indoor air quality in U.S. public schools is notoriously poor, which can have innumerable deleterious health impacts on students and staff. However, because there is not yet scientific consensus on the role of airborne transmission in the spread of the virus, it is also unclear how the indoor air quality of schools matters in the spread of COVID-19. Given the considerable cost associated with updating aging
facilities, it is particularly important to understand the exact role of airborne transmission such that stakeholders can assess the relative value and utility of that investment.
Effectiveness of Mitigation Strategies
Although this committee was expressly tasked with assessing the effectiveness and practicality of the various mitigation strategies intended to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, we were repeatedly thwarted in that endeavor by the lack of clarifying evidence. If this committee of experts was unable to reach consensus on the best direction for schools, it is likely to be extremely challenging for education stakeholders to navigate the plethora of guidance documents to determine what is best for their schools and district. Research on the effectiveness of mitigation strategies and their specific utility in school settings is needed immediately. The committee also suggests that as schools reopen to in-person learning in Fall 2020, researchers leverage the occasion to conduct research in real time, and provide guidance as soon as it becomes available.
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