What the National Academies Advises on School Openings
- By Dian Schaffhauser
May 2020 a committee of experts in education, health, young people
and families embarked on a National
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
is the evidence around which to base decisions? According to
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.
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
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.
help with that decision-making, the report offered nine
need to provide "surgical masks" for teachers and staff
and ample hand-washing supplies for everybody who comes into school
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.
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
need to consider equity in their reopening plans, across schools and
within schools, to ensure that plans address disparities in
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
need to fill in gaps in places where public health offices are
short-staffed or non-existent.
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.
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.
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
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.
Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.