3 Principles for Reopening Schools Safely During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A teacher works at her desk in an empty classroom in Provo, Utah, May 2020.

For months, parents and educators have worried about whether or not schools will be able to reopen safely this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. State and local officials have struggled to balance competing priorities and answer complicated logistical, educational, and public health questions. For the safety of students, families, and educators, science must drive these decisions. Yet recently, President Donald Trump began a politically driven pressure campaign to force schools to physically reopen across the country. Over the past several months, the Trump administration should have been providing resources and assistance to local leaders that would help them implement social distancing, provide personal protective equipment, and plan for a safe reopening. Instead, President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have undermined guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism over the administration’s failure to contain the COVID-19 crisis.

Unfortunately, the failure of the Trump administration to respond to COVID-19 has left schools in a position no better than when they originally closed in March and April. In fact, with cases approaching 3.5 million, deaths topping 135,000, and rapidly rising infection rates in states across the country, it may well be worse. The coronavirus is now in every state, and many are experiencing rampant case growth. The administration’s public health failures are well-known and ongoing—a lack of testing, shortages of personal protective equipment, and no centralized coordination of stay-at-home orders. Moreover, President Trump has urged states to reopen too quickly and sidelined experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, further setting back the U.S. recovery process. Currently, no country in the world has as many new coronavirus cases per million residents as the states of Arizona, Florida, and South Carolina.

When it comes to schools, these public health failures are compounded by education failures. Secretary DeVos has refused to ask Congress for more resources for states and school districts, and she has ignored requests to provide additional reopening guidance. Instead, DeVos has worked to divert funding to private schools and create a voucher-like competitive grant program. Even now, Trump and DeVos continue to threaten to illegally withhold federal funds from school districts that do not physically reopen for full-time in-person instruction—and to condition future funding on reopening. Leaders across the political spectrum have denounced these threats, noting that a one-size-fits-all model ignores the realities in communities across the country and that there are enormous costs associated with any form of school reopening, whether fully in-person, partially in-person, or remote.

Simply put, the Trump administration’s failure to respond to this crisis and its politicization of what should be a nonpartisan issue is a disservice to the many parents who are struggling to ensure that their children can learn and stay safe. Moreover, it is an abdication of the government’s responsibility to protect the health of the country’s students and educators.

Principles for reopening schools safely

Science, not politics, must drive decisions about how and when to reopen schools. This includes both the best science on controlling the spread of COVID-19 and keeping students, families, and school staff safe as well as the science of learning and development for children. Local reopening of schools should be guided by these three key principles.

1. Set an ultimate goal of returning safely to in-person instruction based on public health data

As doctors and educators have said, the goal should be for all students to return safely to in-person instruction. The evidence is clear on its benefits: A recent study found significant negative impacts on student learning associated with switching from a brick-and-mortar school to a virtual school, reinforcing a variety of other research conducted over the past several years. Beyond academics, students gain a host of other educational, social, emotional, and health benefits from being in school with their teachers and peers. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a lack of in-person instruction and support services “often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.”

Still, states and school districts must consider the benefits of in-person schooling against the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which vary greatly in communities across the country. By setting the goal for safe, in-person instruction, school districts can make informed decisions based on public health data to determine when is the appropriate time to return. School districts can also balance these considerations by developing plans for hybrid learning models that involve both in-person and virtual instruction, as well as by prioritizing in-person services for students who have the greatest need for these supports, such as students with disabilities, English language learners, and homeless and foster youth.

2. Make physical reopening decisions based on local health conditions and school-specific information

Decisions on when and how to physically reopen school buildings for in-person instruction must be data-driven, taking into consideration the following factors.

First, the incidence of COVID-19—or the number of reported new cases over a period of time—in the school’s surrounding area must be low enough that transmission can be controlled. The Center for American Progress has previously recommended incidence and testing thresholds that states should meet before reopening their economies. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has taken a similar approach to reopening New York schools, stating that the schools will open only if the positive rate—or share of tests that are positive for the coronavirus—in a region stays below 5 percent over a 14-day average. As of July 16, positive rates in 33 states exceeded that level. If schools open with a high incidence of COVID-19 in the community, children and teachers are more likely to carry the virus into schools. And with high rates of community spread, the virus could quickly rage out of control in schools.

Second, districts must consider the size of the student body, the ability to divide students into smaller cohorts, and the physical condition of the school building. If possible, dividing students into smaller classes could help minimize the number of people each student and teacher comes into contact with during a school day. Smaller student bodies as well as larger physical school buildings make it easier to reconfigure classes so that students remain at least six feet apart.

There is also increasing consensus that the virus can be spread through the air via tiny droplets called aerosols. These aerosols remain in the air and can accumulate over time, increasing the risk of transmission in closed, indoor spaces. For this reason, even if a school is located in an area with relatively low infection rates, districts may wish to err on the side of caution and keep overly crowded schools—or underresourced schools with outdated ventilation—closed to in-person learning until additional upgrades can be made.

Third, school districts must ensure that there is adequate personal protective equipment for teachers and other employees in the schools. In addition to protective masks, schools should have the resources to place barriers in entrance ways, ensure that there are adequate safeguards in areas where food is prepared, and conduct ongoing deep cleaning. In districts serving high percentages of students from families with low incomes, schools will also need to ensure that all students have access to masks, as mask use must be mandatory in all schools to control the spread of the virus.

International case studies for reopening effectively

Evidence from European countries that have successfully reopened their schools supports the use of the aforementioned criteria.

The numbers of daily new cases per 100,000 people in Denmark, Germany, and Norway at the time that they reopened their schools were significantly lower than the daily number of new cases in the United States. On the day these countries reopened schools, they had 3.32, 0.81, and 1.55 new cases per 100,000 people, respectively. In contrast, on July 14, the United States had 17.6 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people—more than five times the rate of Denmark when it reopened. Today, the United States has more than nine times as many daily new cases as the highest peak of new confirmed cases in any of these countries.

Many European countries also opened their schools in a staggered fashion based on current health conditions. For example, in France, the first students to return were younger children in “green” areas of the COVID-19 map, where the virus was not spreading as quickly and where hospital intensive care units were not under pressure.

Once these schools opened, they adopted models to limit contact between students and groups of students. Denmark, for instance, is using a “micro-group model,” in which approximately 12 students are kept in closer proximity with just each other. Germany, meanwhile, keeps desks six feet apart from each other and has shortened school days supplemented with online lessons, allowing no more than 10 students to share a classroom at a time.

Denmark and Norway did not see major upticks in cases after resuming in-person classes. In Germany, there was some transmission among students, which may be tied to community transmission rates at the time of reopening.

In contrast, the virus spread steadily through Israel’s schools. Against the advice of experts, who promoted a cautious reopening, Israel opened all schools at once and continued to see community transmission tied in part to bars, restaurants, gatherings such as weddings, and religious services leading adults to bring the virus into schools.

Each school district in America must evaluate these factors when deciding how and when to return to in-person learning, balancing the real health risks to students, teachers, other employees, and parents against the benefits of school reopenings.

Moreover, it is realistic to expect that schools will need to once again physically shut down if a student or employee tests positive after reopening. Ultimately, the probability of that occurring will depend on the school’s size—mitigated by its ability to break students and others into cohorts—as well as the area’s daily positive test rate.

3. Develop a comprehensive plan for remote learning that includes plans for full-time remote learning and hybrid approaches

Even with the goal of returning safely to in-person instruction, and regardless of the current state of the virus in their community, every district should have a robust, comprehensive plan for remote learning for all students. In localities where in-person instruction is possible, particular students might be unable or unwilling to attend physically before a vaccine is available if they or a family member have preexisting health risks. Moreover, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, almost 1.5 million teachers—nearly 25 percent of the workforce—are at higher risk from COVID-19 due to age or preexisting conditions. For these educators, returning to physical classrooms could be extremely dangerous, and they may need to teach remotely. The federal government, states, and school districts have a responsibility to protect the health of these teachers through careful planning and risk mitigation strategies.

What’s more, the rapid rise in cases this summer in states such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona shows that districts must have contingency plans in case virus spread in the community requires a change to school openings. In the spring, districts were understandably caught off-guard with the need to quickly shut schools down and transition to remote learning; careful planning can prevent this type of scramble in the future.

The importance of contingency planning means that local plans should include preparations for both full-time remote learning and hybrid models, with appropriate supports for students, families, and educators. Most critically, all districts must have a clear focus on equitable access to learning for all students. For example, districts should determine how to provide devices and connectivity to students who do not otherwise have access, training for educators to deliver remote instruction, and resources for parents to help their children navigate remote instruction.

Moving forward

Despite the near-universal goal of returning students to classrooms this fall, the reality is that school districts cannot simply flip a switch and return to the pre-pandemic school structure. Cases linked to a summer camp and summer school this month make clear the need to move deliberately and to make sure that—at a minimum—schools can implement social distancing and other recommended public health measures to reduce spread.

As state and local officials weigh these considerations, the federal government must step up and allocate significant funding to meet the additional needs of schools during the pandemic. Schools need not only cleaning supplies, new barriers, and personal protective equipment—such as face masks for all staff and students—but also costly upgrades to their ventilation systems and other changes to physical infrastructure that are necessary to keep students and others safe. These needs are in addition to the significant resources that states and school districts will require to successfully implement remote or hybrid learning plans, including devices and connectivity, as well as additional instructional support for students.

Based on a range of estimates from the Association of School Business Officials International and AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the American Federation of Teachers; and the Council of Chief State School Officers, meeting these requirements could cost more than $200 billion. Even before the crisis, school health was underresourced: Less than 40 percent of schools had a full-time nurse, and 25 percent did not even have a part-time nurse.

Still, Congress has so far only appropriated $13.5 billion in response and recovery funding for K-12 education under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. At the same time, states are facing dramatic declines in revenue that will affect education budgets, and education needs significant stabilization funding from the federal government. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed the House of Representatives in May but has stalled in the Senate, would provide $58 billion for K-12 schools, along with $875 billion in flexible state and local aid. More recently, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Recovery Act (CCCERA), which dedicates $430 billion across child care, K-12 education, and higher education. In order to help schools weather this crisis, policymakers should prioritize passing these or similar pieces of legislation.

Conclusion

The educational, developmental, and societal impacts of having schools closed are undoubtedly real. Students need access to high-quality instruction and support services to prepare them for college, career, and civic life. Parents—particularly those who have young children and whose jobs do not allow them to work from home—need the stability and security that schools provide. In normal times, in-person schooling is the best way to accomplish these goals. But these are not normal times.

The most important thing for children, families, educators, and the country is to reopen schools safely, in accordance with local health conditions. Rather than politicizing this issue, the federal government must provide funding and guidance for districts to work with community members in developing and implementing comprehensive plans that ensure continued and safe learning for all students.

Scott Sargrad is the vice president of K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. Maura Calsyn is the managing director of Health Policy at the Center.

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