Strategies for safely reopening schools as White House pushes full resumption of in-person instruction

The time for school reopening preparation is running out, but these strategies can help


Many national news outlets’ takeaway from a daylong event at the White House on reopening schools was that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told participants “nobody should hide behind CDC guidance as a way not to reopen schools … because we can’t stay locked in our homes forever.”

The more relevant takeaway for the nation’s 14,000 school superintendents and 135,000 principals, however, is the damage to students’ young lives and futures from protracted closure. Azar said something else educators and parents also know – that schools are “critical not just for educating. They are actually the center of so many children’s entire health care, mental life, social life.”

In fact, he added, most sexual abuse and child crime reporting occurs in the school setting – another danger of keeping kids away from trusted adults. Reports of child abuse and neglect decreased by half in New York City, Assistant Secretary of Health for Mental Health and Substance Use Elinore McCance-Katz said, stressing the role of routine and structure in children’s emotional, mental and physical health development. But, such a decrease “was likely in no way accompanied by 51% decrease in actual child abuse and neglect,” she added sadly.

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator listens during a
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator listens during a "National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America's Schools," event in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in Washington. Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Simply put, McCance-Katz sees prolonged closure as removing a safety net for millions of children.

Moreover, millions of children are not getting pediatric vaccinations or preventative screenings, part of any care regimen in normal times. The secretary said the conversation was not health versus reopening the economy, but “health versus health,” because hundreds of thousands were not being diagnosed with cancer or presenting in emergency rooms with strokes or heart attacks.

They didn’t stop having strokes and heart attack,” Azar said, pointing to “very rare health consequences for adults and children of being locked down,” which could linger for “some time.”

Dr. Sally Goza, American Academy of Pediatrics incoming president, noted that some children “do wonderfully” with online learning but that personal interaction in a physical setting was better for the majority of students.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway signaled at a June event in Waukesha, Wisconsin, that the Trump administration would look at reopening schools as it does the economy: It’s time to reopen despite ongoing pandemic. “The pandemic truly will change the way we look at distance learning, but our goal is to make sure that there’s not a lot of distance in that learning.”

Build on past work and develop options

CDC Director Robert Redfield said nothing would give him “greater sadness” than seeing schools or districts use the Center's guidance to stay closed this coming academic year. In fact, Redfield reminded attendees, the CDC never recommended general school closure in the early stages of the pandemic.

But that doesn't mean the typical transmission of sickness and low-grade flu each autumn won't likely be compounded by the gathering of asymptomatic children with at risk adults.

Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx told a group on a virtual Atlantic Council event earlier in the day that “every single test” developed for coronavirus was built on platforms made to fight HIV and tuberculosis. In other words, there would be no tests if those investments had not been made at that time. Serendipitous, yes, but unforeseen benefits can emerge from opportunities seized and needs addressed.

Many school boards and education departments have embraced drafting plans for the contingency – some believe a near inevitability – of spread this fall.

  1. A plan for total reopening with distancing and other measures
  2. A hybrid plan keeping school occupancy low with staggered school days, and
  3. An ‘escape hatch’ return to total distance learning.

Just a day after the White House event, and shortly after the President threatened via tweet to cut off funding for any school not fully reopened in the fall, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his public schools will stick to their planned modifications. “Most schools will not be able to have all their kids in school at the same time,” he said.

It remains unclear precisely what the President's threat entails, since Congress appropriates federal education funding while local taxes pay for the remainder. 

Pence clarified the tweet at a briefing with Birx, Azar, Redfield and others hours later. "There may be some states and local communities that given cases or positivity in that community may adjust to a certain set of days, and we will be very respectful of that," the Vice President explained.

be prepared for unique challenges

“We are very independent people. Each of our states are different. Each of our counties are different. Each of our metros are different,” Birx said. Obvious enough, but accounting for people’s attitudes, square footage in school facilities, how to further customize bus routes and build up sanitation stockpiles increase likelihood of success on balance.

Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) told reporters at an unrelated press conference a week before the event that education is her “life’s work,” but racial and socio-economic disparities she’d seen for years were made worse by coronavirus. Dilapidated school buildings with poor ventilation pose risk.

They will return to these campuses with the trauma of having watched their neighbors die and racial tension play out throughout the country and not having social workers or psychologists to meet them because of budget cuts. They'll need nurses and counselors when they return,” echoing Azar and McCance-Katz.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said at the event that to be “fully operational and fully functional again" this fall, administrators and public health officials should acknowledge that “there might be a flareup” of COVID-19. “It might look different for a period of time,” she continued, but schools and districts can and should plan for that.

The President also said healthcare providers “will put out the fires as they come out,” referring to coronavirus hotspots as embers.

Tailor strategies, stay up-to-date, seek input

School boards are holding public hearings as they work to develop reopening plans. DeVos encourages administrators to listen to parents and other stakeholders – from the bus driver to the teacher and the janitor, the school nurse and cafeteria worker – to find “the right solution… because it is imperative that students continue to learn.”

There's no reason to stop there, though. Districts would be wise to engage constituents and taxpayers even without children in the system. Those with feedback will have something valuable to share, which could be much more than testimony.

Administrators would also do well to designate a point person to stay apprised of CDC guidance – another round of five “consideration documents” as Redfield calls them – due in mid-July set to address class-size, scheduling, screenings, face covering and other topics. And it’s not just CDC or your state health agency; the AAP issued interim reopening guidance focused on mitigating risk.

That information should flow throughout the tree within your agency so that your district remains agile in the same way predictive models change with new data inputs. After all, Pence noted that CDC guidance “is meant as a supplement and not to replace” state, local, territorial and tribal guidance.

Where a relationship exists – or cultivate if it doesn’t – share knowledge and coordinate with outside caregivers like babysitters and childcare centers, youth sports and others – CDC guidance is aimed just as much at them.

Don’t expect to be spared

Have contingencies in place for when a small outbreak does occur, shared with enough staff and management knowledgeable to implement, and be transparent with students, parents and other stakeholders. Every governor with a phased reopening plan for the economy has means to roll back and contain instances of community spread. DeVos recommends having plans in place “to be able to shift to immediately” as seamlessly as practicable.

Of course, children learn not only from social interaction but through mimicry. That’s one reason, according to Birx, for spikes in the so-called Sunbelt states as young people decided to eschew social distancing after seeing their peers "out and about on social media," leading to "really significant cases in people under 45," she said. Expect the same from children’s behavior in the classroom and schoolyard.

The overarching principle we're using,” Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Pearson said, “is this virus isn't going to go away. We've got to learn to live with it. Our economy depends on it. And getting kids back into school is critical for our economy.”

Learn about the virus, then reinforce precautions

Birx said at the Atlantic Council videoconference that data showed only 17% of people under 30 were asymptomatic but COVID positive, but as of July they learned “it’s way over 50%." By getting antibody levels from that cohort, she said, agencies could see who to “really worry about in a very clear way.”

Azar says parents should encourage a safe learning environment even during a pandemic, which means “taking the reasonable and appropriate precautions in the school to protect children” with surveillance, social distancing, face covering policies and good personal hygiene. “I don’t think that’s too much to expect.” Like any new habit, use familiar teaching techniques to make students comfortable and then consistent with the three major individual practices.

Redfield said his agency encourages all schools to reopen with plans “that anticipate some spread” within the system. Remind parents in all communications to follow social distancing, cover faces and wash hands, since spread is a two-way street between a household and the school. Redfield reports that within households where family members did not distance, occupants experienced up to a 75% transmission rate within the home, no doubt exacerbated by spatial and familial intimacy.

Reach out to your state or local emergency management agency and be creative about stocking up for the fall. “It’s a lot of hands. It takes a lot of hand sanitizer. It takes a lot of soap and water. It takes a lot of personal protective equipment for school nurses,” Pearson said at the White House event.

Birx said the Task Force was working with “every governor and every mayor to increase and flood testing” into vulnerable areas and neighborhoods, “then working very hard with our hospitals to ensure better outcomes.” Nancy Aichholz said her view was “planning for the best, hoping for the best – but knowing that the not-so-best is likely to happen.”

Brace for a balancing act

President Trump said at the event that his administration is “very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else” to reopen, emphasizing its importance to the well-being of students and parents. The nation risks a generation of students fallen behind academically.

Conditions beyond your control such as vaccine development will influence the public’s attitude and parents’ fears. More readily available, though, are tests which can give administrators, educators, coaches and parents confidence, but also undue fear in case a spread is detected. Have measures to mitigate against panic, or at least to permit hybrid classes where some students are in school and others are kept home.

Administrators should try to anticipate policy questions from staff and the public to the extent possible. What happens when an educator or other personnel test positive or present symptoms? Are sick leave and other normal benefits extended to others at-risk, or time accrued in quarantine? Given widespread budget constraints facing jurisdictions, how are tests paid for, or the additional staff time spent on administrative tasks or sanitation to be covered?

Principals and administrators will want to test teachers and older adults frequently – “everybody in some classes if one student gets sick, maybe everybody in an elementary school if several students get sick, and maybe the parents and grandparents of the children if the children bring home the disease,” Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) acknowledged.

We are not defenseless against this disease. We have powerful tools at our disposal – social distancing, wear face cover in public and be disciplined about frequent hand washing,” Redfield told Alexander at a recent Senate hearing.

To reiterate then – “If you want to contain the disease,” Alexander said, summarizing experts, “if you want to go back to school and back to college and back to work and out to eat and maybe even see a little football, stay six feet apart, wash your hands, and wear a mask.”

Still, as Vice President Mike Pence said at the Wisconsin event, there could be a “reinvigoration... as every parent became an educator in part and had to make choices in the way they use their own time." 

“[But] If we’ve learned anything, said the President, "the computer will never replace the campus."

Next: Pandemic exacerbates known challenges facing students

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