National Academies: Reopen schools with cautions

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, schools and teachers are focused on cleaning and sanitizing classrooms.
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, schools and teachers are focused on cleaning and sanitizing classrooms.

Credit: LM Otero

Credit: LM Otero

Recommendation calls for safety measures that would cost average Georgia district about $1.8 million

Can America’s K-12 schools reopen safely?

Yes, says the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, but with qualifiers and caveats.

Among the most challenging advisories in the 123-page study report released today: Teachers in early grades have 10 students in a cohort and stay with them through most of the day to enable social distancing. And everyone in school buildings wear a face mask, something many Georgia school districts thus far are reluctant to mandate.

Such a low teacher-student ratio will be difficult in most Georgia schools unless substantial numbers of parents opt for online learning. (Many districts have imposed deadlines of this week or next for parents to choose an digital program for their child, a decision that will require in most cases that students remain in a virtual setting for nine weeks to a full semester. )

The Academies – an independent panel of experts -- compared the health risks of reopening K-12 schools with the educational risks of not providing in-person instruction. Its conclusion: School districts should prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs.

“This pandemic has laid bare the deep, enduring inequities that afflict our country and our schools,” said Enriqueta Bond, chair of the committee that authored the report. “Many of the communities hardest hit by the virus are also home to schools with the least resources and the greatest challenges. Education leaders need to be careful when making the decision to reopen to not exacerbate these inequities.”

The report emphasizes the critical services schools supply to their communities outside of academics, including child care, meals, and family supports. The Academies recognized that opening schools may create staffing shortages since many school personnel are in COVID-19 high-risk age groups or are leery of returning to classrooms because of health risks.

The academies consulted experts to inform its report, including Stephen Pruitt, former Georgia Department of Education official, the ex-Kentucky commissioner of education and now president of the Southern Regional Education Board. Pruitt told an Academies panel earlier this summer that districts are facing hard decisions in how and when to reopen.

He said 18% to 20% of teachers fall in the vulnerable age group that is more susceptible to COVID-19. “What happens when those teachers decide to retire?” he asked. And how do districts accelerate students rather than remediate them? Always looming, Pruitt warned the experts, are budget constraints.

“We need guidance,” he said, “but at the end of the day any decision-making will be at the local level. School is not rocket science. Rocket science may be easier.”

After the release of the report today, Pruitt said. “The decisions that schools, districts, and states face as they plan for reopening in August are much more complex than many of us realize. The financial decisions around reopening safely are especially daunting. Many school systems may need additional support...We know that reopening schools will be expensive, no doubt about it. Schools will need more supplies such as sanitizer and masks, digital devices if students must learn at home, and additional staff to help with social distancing, disinfecting, and additional buses and routes in some places.”

Among the experts who appeared before the Academies panel was early childhood researcher Karen Bierman, who explained that schools shape young children’s social and emotional development and help themdevelop a capacity to get along with other people, make friends, cooperate, self-regulate, negotiate and collaborate.

“School is where children learn to organize themselves with peers and function as a team,” said Bierman, a distinguished professor of child-clinical psychology and director of the Child Study Center at Penn State University.

The report calls on federal and state governments to provide resources to districts and schools for masks, enhanced cleaning, facility upgrades, and reconfigured classes. The report estimates the cost of COVID-19 precautions will total around $1.8 million for a school system with eight school buildings and around 3,200 students. (The average Georgia district has about 3000 students.)

“Right now, due to the economic crisis brought forth by this pandemic, we have already lost nearly one million education jobs, and another 2 million more are at risk,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. “Funding has fallen off a cliff. We want to open schools, but we cannot bring students back to the classroom if we don’t get the support from the Senate to do it safely and to make sure they have what they need to succeed.”

The report recommends schools and districts take the following precautions:

  • Provide surgical masks for all teachers and staff. All students and staff should wear face masks. Younger children may have difficulty using face masks, but schools should encourage compliance.
  • Provide hand washing stations or hand sanitizer for all people who enter school buildings, minimize contact with shared surfaces, and increase regular surface cleaning.
  • Limit large gatherings of students, such as during assemblies, in the cafeteria, and overcrowding at school entrances, possibly by staggering arrival times.
  • Reorganize classrooms to enable physical distancing, such as by limiting class sizes or moving instruction to larger spaces. To enable social distancing, consider cohorting, when a group of 10 students or less stay with the same staff as much as possible.
  • Prioritize cleaning, ventilation, and air filtration, while recognizing that this alone will not sufficiently lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
  • Create a culture of health and safety in every school, and enforce virus mitigation guidelines using positive approaches rather than by disciplining students.

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