COVID-19 Response

What the National Academies Advises on School Openings

In May 2020 a committee of experts in education, health, young people and families embarked on a National Academies project to develop evidence-based guidance on reopening schools for in-person learning that would be available in time for fall 2020. As the group progressed, they never predicted that discussions around the issue of reopening "would explode" as they have, as the members of the committee acknowledged in a recently issued report. As they noted, "The politics of the moment are ablaze: one need only scan the headlines of U.S. newspapers to uncover the ways the politics around the question of reopening have overshadowed the scientific evidence."

What is the evidence around which to base decisions? According to "Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic," while the data to date has suggested that children and youth (those 18 and younger) are "at low risk of serious, long-term consequences or death" as a result of contracting COVID-19, there's "insufficient evidence" about how contagious children are once they do contract the virus. Also, there's "no definitive evidence" about what mix of mitigation efforts--physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings, handwashing, wearing masks--is most effective for limiting the transmission of the virus in a school setting. The lack of evidence is a problem, the report stated, making it "extremely difficult" for decisionmakers to understand the true health risks of opening or operating their schools in ways that will reduce transmission risks.

Yet reopening is the goal, since it provides a multitude of benefits for families--not just the education itself but also access to childcare for school-age kids and other forms of support, including meals and health services.

While there's a ton of guidance available these days for education leaders about reopening their schools, most of that direction comes in the form of questions to be answered, the report pointed out. While that approach may allow for "regional variation and flexibility," it also leaves district leaders in a position of "tremendous responsibility" for weighing the risks against the benefits.

To help with that decision-making, the report offered nine recommendations:

  • Schools need to provide "surgical masks" for teachers and staff and ample hand-washing supplies for everybody who comes into school buildings.

  • Schools need to follow the mitigation strategies that appear to help reduce transmission. That includes limiting large groups and pushing physical distancing. Another "promising strategy": creating small cohorts of students.

  • Districts need to continue weighing the health risks against the educational risks, with priority for reopening focused on "providing full-time, in-person instruction in grades K–5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction."

  • Districts need to consider equity in their reopening plans, across schools and within schools, to ensure that plans address disparities in resources.

  • Districts need to work closely with the local public health department, on assessing the school facilities for health and safety standards, developing plans for mitigating the spread of the virus, coming up with a way to monitor virus data for tracking community spread, participating in shared decision-making about changes to the plans and producing and delivering prevention and health training to the school community.

  • States need to fill in gaps in places where public health offices are short-staffed or non-existent.

  • All of those stakeholders--school leaders and state and local decision-makers--need to set up a local task force that takes input from school staff, families, health officials and other community interests, to understand what the education and community priorities are and how the schools can respond.

  • Federal and state governments need to provide "significant resources" to reduce the financial burden of reopening. That includes not penalizing schools for student absences during the pandemic.

  • The research community needs to do more research on children and the transmission of COVID-19, how school openings are contributing to the spread of the virus in their communities and other relevant aspects.

The full report is available for $40.50 as a paperback, $33.29 as an ebook or free as a PDF file on the National Academies website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.