As school leaders, we’ve been given unclear, and often conflicting, guidance from experts about how and when schools can reopen through a strategy that keeps our students, teachers, and supportive staff safe. Let’s break down the scientific research and evidence which can steer us toward a safe return to school.
What Does Scientific Research Say About How School Closings Impact Students?
A working paper from Brown University predicts that students will enter the 2020-2021 school year with “approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math” due to unexpected school closures this past spring.
Additionally, the classroom is more than just a source of academic value. Schools also provide:
- Targeted education supports, such as services for IDEA/SPED students
- Meals for students from low-income households
- Opportunities for social and emotional learning
- A safe place for students at risk for domestic abuse and neglect
- Relief for parents who must work full-time
Despite the many benefits classroom learning offers our communities, we cannot rush to reopen schools. In their joint statement with educators and superintendents, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”
The most up-to-date about COVID-19 evidence suggests:
1. Students with underlying health conditions should not return to school.
As of the writing of this article, about 51.6% of children who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are reported to have an underlying health condition. For their safety, children with underlying health conditions should only engage in distance learning until the spread of the virus is well-contained in their area.
2. Older staff and staff with underlying health conditions should not return to school.
The CDC finds that older adults continue to have the highest rates of hospitalization associated with COVID-19. Additionally, 90.9% of all adults hospitalized with COVID-19 are reported to have had an underlying health condition.
High-risk adults should not be required to work at schools until the spread of the virus is well-contained in their area.
3. When schools reopen, CDC guidelines should be followed as closely as possible.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that COVID-19 is transmitted between people through:
- Direct contact with saliva, respiratory secretions, or secretion droplets spread through actions including coughing, sneezing, speaking, and singing
- Indirect contact through contaminated objects or surfaces
- Contact with people who exhibit symptoms, are asymptomatic, and are pre-symptomatic
The CDC offers guidelines for schools to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, including:
- Educating your community about when staff and students should remain at home, such as when they exhibit symptoms.
- Educating staff and students about how and why they should limit close contact with others, such as in crowded cafeterias and small break rooms.
- Requiring staff and students to properly wash their hands, and holding them accountable.
- Requiring staff and students to properly wear masks, unless they are younger than two years old or have a medical issue preventing them from being able to safely wear a mask.
- Providing easy access to adequate hygiene, cleaning, and disinfecting supplies.
- Posting visible signs which clearly explain safety procedures, such as how to properly wash hands, wear masks, and social distance.
4. School leaders must advocate for proper funding to safely reopen schools.
School leaders are facing political pressure and conflicting information from many sources as we try to decide how and when to reopen our schools. Unfortunately, we don’t operate in a vacuum, and other people and systems are strongly impacted by these decisions.
Keeping schools closed during the fall semester would negatively impact:
- Underserved students who rely upon schools for educational, mental health, and other supports
- Students at an increased risk for experiencing domestic abuse or neglect at home
- Parents working from home who can’t afford to lose their jobs, and must split their attention between their work and kids
- Parents who don’t have the option to work from home and don’t have realistic, safe childcare options
School leaders must have frank conversations with local, state, and federal leaders to advocate for the funding needed to keep staff and families safe during the upcoming fall semester. School leaders must express the need for funding related to:
- Adequate compensation, paid sick leave, and high quality healthcare for teachers
- Adequate cleaning and disinfecting practices, including the need for more supplies and cleaning staff
- Reducing class sizes
- Adequate emotional and mental health supports for students, including the need to hire more counselors
- Adequate distance learning supports for IDEA students who have special needs, gifted students, and underserved students who are at risk for falling behind
- Virtual learning platforms and resources, including reliable internet access for students in rural and under-resourced communities
- Ongoing professional development to train teachers on best practices for distance learning, supporting underserved students, and teaching while social distancing.
- Childcare for teachers who have school-aged children, especially in districts where students will attend class on an alternating or split-shift schedule — If a teacher has their own school-aged children who can only attend class part-time, but the teacher is required to work in the school full-time, they will need realistic, safe childcare options for the times when their children are not in school.
Where Can School Leaders Find More Guidance About Reopening Schools?
We recommend the following resources:
- Your local health department
- The CDC’s Considerations for Schools and FAQs for Administrators
- The University of Oxford’s collected data showing how policies in different countries have impacted the local spread of COVID-19
- NCES’s Most Current Digest Tables, which provide data about students at the national and state levels to help guide your planning