Want to Know What’s Really Happening With School Reopenings? Look Local

Debate about reopening schools amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has touched off a national political firestorm. But schools, districts, and states are already deep in the real work of figuring out how, not if, schools can reopen.

In Colorado, the largest school districts are currently planning to open buildings full-time while also offering an online option. In other states, large school districts are planning hybrid models, where students attend school a few days a week in cohorts. Across the country and around the state, many districts are still figuring what to do – and how to fund it.

Dancing the Dance

Last month, CHI CEO Michele Lueck suggested that there are five key opportunities in the “dance” of reopening post-COVID-19: Ensuring that reopening is guided by sound data and gut checks; developing regional approaches and cooperation; restoring political will; providing strong guidance and thresholds for mitigation; and ensuring social justice in our COVID-19 response.

The dance of opening schools brings the same opportunities. But a closer look only highlights the complexity of the decisions policymakers, teachers and school staff, and families are faced with as the 2020-21 school year approaches.

Ensuring that reopening is guided by sound data and gut checks

The Colorado Department of Education has an advisory committee that is helping it sift through data and figure out what is safe for the state’s schools, which want to ensure that decisions about how to reopen are guided by evidence, not politics. But evidence about COVID-19’s transmission and risk in school contexts is still developing, as are guidelines from local and federal public health authorities. Some studies suggest that risk in schools is relatively low, yet there have been outbreaks and deaths in schools and summer schools.

The state’s overall count of coronavirus cases and deaths will play a role in officials’ determinations. But the considerations for schools extend beyond this data. A report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that more than three-quarters of students said they received very little meaningful instruction during the shutdown. The shutdown also triggered concerns about the mental and physical health of children — reports of child abuse dropped, for instance, as fewer children were in contact with mandatory reporters — and about equity, as some families and districts simply did not have the time or technology to make remote learning work. That’s not to mention the bind many working parents, especially women, were put in as they were suddenly tasked with both teaching children and doing their jobs.

That’s why last month the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that, where possible, schools reopen their buildings this year. At the same time, surveys have found that many teachers and families are wary of returning to school in person, and some felt the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation ignored potential risks to teachers’ health. And returning to school while abiding by social distancing guidelines is likely to involve new expenses for already financially-strapped schools.

Schools will be weighing all these factors as they decide how best to use their facilities and serve their students. It’s a complicated equation, and it will likely require flexibility and regular gut checks on the part of schools and families over the course of the year.  

Developing regional approaches and cooperation

Education and public health have always been connected. But as a practical matter, they’ve likely never been closer: School and local public health officials are meeting nearly daily in some regions. Close collaboration between these sectors will be necessary as schools seek to balance the risk of disease transmission with their communities’ educational and other needs. Public health agencies are partnering with schools to plan for managing outbreaks, testing, and more.

At the same time, districts, schools, teachers, and students will benefit from sharing best practices for online learning, communication, social distancing, staffing, and more. Education is controlled locally in Colorado — but lessons learned in Eagle County may well be relevant in Ouray or Denver.  

Restoring political will

Schools are preparing to reopen at a moment when the country – Colorado included – is experiencing an increase in cases that suggests the worst is not yet over. Many communities are weary and ready for normalcy, consistency, and clarity after months of restricted activity. But it is possible that growing community spread or local outbreaks could lead to more school shutdowns, quarantines for some students or teachers, or other difficult approaches to reducing the risk of disease over the school year. School and community leaders will need to work with and listen to their communities to maintain trust and the will to make hard decisions if, and when, public health requires it. 

Providing strong guidance and thresholds for mitigation

The Metro Denver Partnership for Health, which is facilitated by CHI, released guidelines for opening schools safely earlier this summer; the CDC and other agencies also have offered guidance. But these recommendations are still in flux.

And as schools reopen, there will be tricky questions about how long students or teachers who were exposed to the virus need to quarantine, how many cases in a given school or community will trigger a shutdown, and more. Such guidelines and thresholds will help school communities feel more confident about the return to school — but there will be competing interests in just what they should be.

Ensuring social justice in our COVID-19 response

Opting to keep school online could put students who have less access to technology at a disadvantage and continue to distance students with a variety of needs from resources they usually get at school. At the same time, opening schools could introduce new risks to those who are more vulnerable to the disease, including Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Indigenous, and South Asian students and their families, older teachers, and students and staff with other risk factors.

The economic devastation caused by the pandemic has already led to dramatic cuts to education spending at the state level. Wealthier school districts will be more able to weather those cuts, while less-affluent districts, and particularly rural districts, will suffer. Education advocates are suggesting that one longer-term upside to this is that the cuts may force a conversation in the legislature about the state’s inequitable approach to funding schools. But that’s little comfort to students, parents, and teachers bracing for a historic, challenging school year and no help to deal with it.

Again, education leaders will need to listen to and work closely with students, families, and teachers to ensure that disparities in educational and health outcomes don’t increase as a result of measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 — and, where possible, look for opportunities to reduce existing disparities.

There is no question that Colorado’s K-12 schools will be educating students this year. Some will be in person; some will be online; some will be hybrid. It’s very likely that what school looks like will evolve over the course of the year as the pandemic continues to run its course. Reopening schools in a way that suits everyone is a nearly impossible task. But if you dig beneath the heated political rhetoric, you’ll find leaders and communities searching for solutions that will keep their students, teachers, families, and communities healthy.

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