How K-12 Schools Should Prepare for Coronavirus

A student leaves elementary school with a parent after the Seattle Public School system was closed abruptly due to coronavirus fears on March 11, 2020.

The new coronavirus is spreading rapidly, forcing school leaders to consider and prepare for school closures as the virus spreads and infection counts increase. District and school leaders, along with public health officials, will have to make tough decisions with imperfect information on just how widespread infections are in their area and balance that against the multitude of effects that closures would have on families and communities. In addition to their educational mission, schools are a critical provider of nutrition for nearly 30 million children; provide important services for 7 million students with disabilities; and are a source of child care for the tens of millions of parents who work outside of the home.

According to Education Week, as of March 11, 2020, there are more than 1,500 schools closed or scheduled to close out of the more than 130,000 public and private schools nationwide. These closures and pending closures affect more than 1 million students—or nearly 2 percent of the more than 55 million school-age children nationwide—and could increase substantially in coming days.

Just as the most severe health risks from COVID-19 are likely to be concentrated among the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions, the economic effects of the pandemic are likely to be concentrated among financially vulnerable workers with variable schedules, those who rely on tips, and those who lack paid sick leave and adequate health insurance. The impacts of school closures will amplify those effects if remote work is not an option for parents and access to child nutrition and services for students with disabilities are reduced.

Even with the challenges families would face, there is some evidence from prior pandemics that early implementation of “nonpharmaceutical interventions” such as canceling events and closing schools “can help prevent many thousands of illnesses and deaths.” According to Dr. Howard Markel’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Shutting them [schools] down can be a key part of slowing the spread of easily transmissible viruses so that hospitals are not overrun with sick people.”

Initial priorities for school leaders should include consulting with local health officials on their recommendations for operations as well as reviewing guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This will help ensure that schools’ decisions are following the best available guidance based on the progression of infections in their area and help health systems and other employers prepare if their employees’ child care responsibilities are set to increase. As these planning and preparation discussions continue, schools should make sure they are clearly communicating updates to families using terminology and languages they can understand.

Equity must be at the center of any response

The next priority should be focused on key equity issues in the event that it becomes necessary to close schools. These include plans for providing meals to children from families with low incomes, critical services to students with disabilities, and supports for other vulnerable students such as those experiencing homelessness.

  • The USDA offers flexibilities and waivers—which California, Maine, and Washington have already received—to requirements that meals be served in group settings and allowing meals to be served off campus.
  • Schools’ plans should consider how to get meals to children if transportation is affected. They also should look to deepen collaboration with food banks and pantries to facilitate further support for families whose incomes are affected by the pandemic.
  • Many schools provide extra supports such as access to washers and dryers for vulnerable students who may be experiencing homelessness or other challenges. Those schools should plan for how to continue those supports if school is disrupted.
  • School systems’ efforts should also prioritize how to deliver services such as physical and occupational therapy to students with disabilities; begin planning for any upcoming school transitions for students with disabilities; and provide services for English language learners and other necessary counseling and supports in advance of making decisions to close schools.

Schools should survey families and staff on potential technological barriers

Equity should also be the focus for plans to continue educational activities in the event of school closures. Rather than rushing into contracts and training to quickly set up online courses, schools should focus on how they can best support their most vulnerable students in the event that schools must close. Research into online courses has shown that they create the greatest risks for students with lower levels of prior achievement, and those studies have been conducted when students and teachers know in advance that they will be taking and teaching courses online.

As soon as possible, schools should survey families about what technological devices and internet access they have available. Many families lack broadband access at home and may rely on adults’ mobile devices with limited data plans. Even families with high-speed connections may not have enough devices for multiple children to use during the day. Given that varied access, any survey should be distributed through multiple channels and not just via email or district websites and social media. Those surveys should inform plans that districts may develop to prioritize how to make devices and mobile broadband access points available to families. They can also inform which students would most benefit from access to nondigital resources such as printed assignments and library books.

These surveys should help schools understand what kids’ home environments will be like during a closure. Will students have devices or need to share with siblings or other family members? Will there be adults at home and able to help them stay on task, or will they have to work remotely themselves? Are there reading level, language, or individualized education plan considerations to accessing planned online resources? Answers to all of these questions should inform plans that districts make for any remote learning. Students with no or intermittent access to devices and high-speed internet, care responsibilities for younger siblings, and other special needs should be the central consideration in schools’ planning.

This survey data could also help schools facilitate connections between families to support one another during potential school closures. Families with adults at home, working at home, or working schedules outside the typical school day could offer to support other families that may not have those same flexibilities.

Schools should also survey teachers and other staff about what their technology access, work environment, and child care responsibilities would be like if schools and day care providers closed. Many educators will face the same challenges as other families with working at home, and their ability to maintain focus should inform decisions and expectations about moving educational activities online. School systems should also develop and clearly communicate information on work schedule flexibility and leave policies for staff if they begin working remotely or are directly affected by the coronavirus.

If schools decide to move some courses or activities online during closures, they should consider developing or sharing resources to support families that go beyond traditional course and schoolwork. These could include playlists of videos and discussion questions that are related to current and planned units in the class’ scope and sequence. It could also include suggestions for games and engaging physical activities to break up what may be stressful days at home for families.

Policymakers must prepare for the challenges of long-term school closures

In addition to the above steps school leaders should consider, federal, state, and local policymakers should start preparing for immediate and longer-term challenges that the coronavirus poses in the event schools close. These issues may involve complicated interactions and waivers from existing laws and policies, so it is important to begin researching and reviewing options now so that students, families, and other stakeholders can stay informed.

  • Meals: Federal leaders can encourage and state leaders should pursue waivers from the USDA for school meals to allow school systems as much flexibility as possible to meet the needs in their communities if schools close.
  • Technology: Policymakers at all levels can accelerate efforts to address gaps in access to devices and broadband for students and families.
    • Leaders can request that telecommunications providers temporarily remove mobile data limitations if schools close so that families can access online learning resources without concerns about overage charges.
    • State and local policymakers can publicize discounted internet access plans that are available to families with children who are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.
    • Federal policymakers can also work to remove restrictions in the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program to make internet access off school premises eligible for E-Rate support as discussed in a recent Government Accountability Office report.
  • Assessments and transition planning: Federal, state, and local policymakers should plan for potential disruptions to annual assessments as well as preparations for graduation and other transitions within school systems.
    • Federal and state policymakers should prepare for interruptions to statewide assessments this spring as well as what waivers and postponements may be necessary for affected communities or statewide. States should consider tracking school disruptions in their longitudinal data systems so that researchers can study and learn about the coronavirus’ impacts on student learning.
    • State policymakers should review and provide guidance to school systems on credit and graduation policies as well as any waivers or flexibilities that may exist so students can remain on track for graduation.
    • State and local policymakers should prepare to support students who are making plans for postsecondary education and careers. They should consider how to provide counseling and flexibility around college applications, admission, and enrollment in the event of school closures.
    • Local policymakers should discuss planning for student transitions to middle and high schools in the event of extended school closures.
  • Funding and scheduling: Policymakers should begin discussing options for supplemental funding to extend the current school year, start the next school year early, and provide longer-term support to students facing significant educational disruptions due to the coronavirus.

With the coronavirus’s spread, school leaders will face difficult decisions that affect thousands of families and communities while relying on imperfect information. With a focus on equity, in continuing critical services and supporting students’ education, they can help mitigate the effects for their communities’ most vulnerable children and families.

Neil Campbell is the director of innovation for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.