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The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to the nation’s kindergarten-grade 12 education system.1 The rush to respond to the pandemic led to closures of school buildings across the country, with little time to ensure continuity of instruction or to create a framework for deciding when and how to reopen schools. States and school districts are now grappling with the complex questions of whether and how to reopen school buildings in the context of rapidly changing patterns of community spread.
In response to the need for evidence-based guidance to support education decision makers, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an expert committee to provide guidance on the reopening and safe operation of elementary and secondary schools for the 2020-2021 school year. The committee was asked to integrate the most up-to-date evidence from medicine and public health with evidence about what is best for children and youth in view of the political and practical realities in schools and communities. The committee’s report, Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities, provides a series of recommendations aimed at helping states and school districts determine both whether to open school buildings for in-person learning and, if so, how to reduce risk in the process of reopening.2 It also identifies areas of research that are urgently needed to allow educators and policy makers to make evidence-based decisions about reopening and about operating schools during a pandemic.
The committee recognized the decision to reopen school buildings entails weighing the public health risks of opening against the educational and other risks of keeping buildings closed. As school districts weigh these risks, the committee recommended that the school districts make every effort to prioritize reopening with an emphasis on providing in-person instruction for students in kindergarten-grade 5 as well as those students with special needs who might be best served by in-person instruction.
The committee emphasized providing in-person instruction for children in the younger grades for several reasons. First, the committee made the assumption that even if school buildings remain closed, instruction will continue through distance learning. Elementary school–aged children as well as those with special health care needs, in particular, may struggle with distance learning, especially if an adult is not readily available to supervise the experience. Children in kindergarten-grade 3 are still developing the skills needed to regulate their own behavior and emotions, maintain attention, and monitor their own learning.3 In addition, research has demonstrated long-term, adverse consequences for children who are not reading at grade level by the third grade, particularly for those in low-income families. This suggests it is critically important to ensure quality educational experiences for children in the lower grades.4
There are also potential benefits to families and communities of reopening school buildings, including access to meal programs, some health care services, and mental health services. Although childcare is not the primary function of schools, the experiences of families and communities during school closures during the spring of 2020 make clear that schools serve an important role in providing a safe and nurturing space for children while their caregivers work.
Even though the benefits of reopening schools for students, families, and communities are clear, education leaders must also consider the health risks to school personnel and students’ families, as well as the practicality and cost of the mitigation strategies necessary to operate safely. Variation across schools in the condition of buildings is an additional complication for ensuring the health of students and staff at schools. To reopen safely, school districts are encouraged to ensure ventilation and air filtration, clean surfaces frequently, provide facilities for regular handwashing, and provide space for physical distancing. Implementing this full suite of strategies will be costly and will require addressing many practical challenges. In school districts with aging school buildings and limited budgets, it will be especially difficult to implement all of the recommended strategies. Funding for these mitigation strategies should come from federal or state sources.
Recognizing the complexity of the decisions that school districts need to make, the committee outlined several recommendations aimed at ensuring a balance of public health and educational expertise is brought to bear in decisions, and the decision-making process considers the values and needs of the community the school district serves.
The committee called for partnerships between school districts and public health officials so that reopening decisions, plans for mitigating spread of the virus when buildings open, and decisions about future closures are all informed by the best available epidemiological and public health data and evidence. This should include a plan to monitor and evaluate epidemiological data to iteratively assess disease activity in the community. Indicators of particular interest include the number of new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed, the number of new hospitalizations and deaths, and the percentage of positive diagnostic tests for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
School districts also will need to monitor absenteeism and alert public health officials to any large increases.5 The committee recognized that in some communities, in rural areas, for example, public health offices are short-staffed or lack personnel with extensive expertise in infectious disease. With this in mind, the committee recommended that states take a leadership role in ensuring school districts have access to the public health expertise necessary to make these critical decisions.
As the intense national focus on the reopening question reveals, school closures have implications beyond the consequences for students, teachers, and families. With this in mind, the committee recommended that school districts 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. This cross-sector task force should build out a local framework for decision-making that brings multiple voices to the table to: (1) establish the community’s values, goals, and priorities for reopening schools, (2) review mitigation strategies and policy options for schools, and (3) establish protocols for collecting and monitoring data related to the COVID-19 context in the community such that necessary decisions can be made to change course or reclose buildings if necessary. During this process, relevant decision makers need to establish clear thresholds for what those data mean; for example, once a school sees a specific number of cases, it will enact specific policies in response.
These task forces also need to consider transparent communication of the reality that while measures can be implemented to lower the risk of transmitting COVID-19 when schools reopen, there is no way to eliminate that risk entirely. It is critical to share both the risks and benefits of different scenarios, and to consider interventions that can be implemented and communicate to families that every effort is being made to keep their children safe in schools. Although all parties will not necessarily agree with the final decisions about when and how to reopen schools, an inclusive process will likely help build trust in school leadership so that decisions can be implemented quickly should conditions change.
These myriad decisions facing education leaders and state and local policy makers are made more difficult by gaps in the evidence base related to COVID-19. The committee identified a number of important research questions. Currently there is no scientific consensus on the role of children in transmitting COVID-19 either to one another or to adults. Better evidence on this point would offer much-needed guidance for decision makers. Similarly, research is needed on the role of reopening schools in contributing to community spread of SARS-CoV-2, the potential risk of airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and the relative effectiveness of strategies for mitigating the spread of SARS-CoV-2. These research questions should be addressed concomitantly with the process of reopening schools.
The report recognized the importance of acknowledging that decisions to reopen schools are occurring against the backdrop of a long history of inequity in education, as well as deeply troubling inequities in COVID-19–related outcomes. Just as the ability of public schools to meet the needs of their communities is contingent on available resources, so too is a community’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis contingent on health care infrastructure and access. These challenges have the potential to compound each other in ways that could be catastrophic for the most vulnerable communities. Within any answer to the question of reopening, decision makers will need to position equity at the center of their response by ensuring traditionally marginalized voices are engaged in the decision-making process, necessary services are accessible, and resources are equitably distributed. This moment is an opportunity to reopen schools in ways that enable them to better serve the students, families, and communities that rely on them.
Corresponding Author: Kenne A. Dibner, PhD, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 500 Fifth St NW, Washington, DC 20001 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Published Online: July 29, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.14745
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Funding/Support: The study was funded by the Brady Education Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.
Role of the Funders/Sponsors: The Brady Education Foundation and the Spencer Foundation had no role in the preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript or decision to submit the manuscript for publication.
Additional Information: The report Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities was produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The authors of this Viewpoint were the study director (Dr Dibner), director of the Board on Science Education (Dr Schweingruber), and a member of the study committee (Dr Christakis).
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Dibner KA, Schweingruber HA, Christakis DA. Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Report From the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. JAMA. 2020;324(9):833–834. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.14745
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