Monday, November 28, 2022
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A Blueprint for Back to School

Families and communities need schools to be ready to reopen as soon as public health officials signal it is safe. After all, the nation has recently been reminded just how vital schools really are. Schools connect students with peers and mentors, channel youthful energy into productive pursuits, teach essential academic skills and knowledge, and give overwhelmed parents room to breathe and work.
This makes it urgent that schools find a way to reopen this fall, if at all feasible. Reopening in a manner that is safe and responsive will involve novel challenges. That is why leaders must begin planning immediately. But let us be clear: A number of public health officials – including the habitually cautious Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – have indicated that they expect schools will likely be able to reopen this fall.
What will it take to get schools ready for this fall, amid enormous uncertainty? The path to reopening must be based on the public health frameworks guiding the gradual relaxation of the intensive social distancing measures adopted this spring. Any consideration about reopening must consider the wide variability of circumstances states, communities and schools confront.
Depending on the public health situation, there may be waves of stopping and starting, partial or staggered openings, or other developments (determined by local health facilities, population vulnerability, and more). These decisions will require robust community engagement to yield both coherent planning and community support.
Underlying Assumptions
Education leaders must begin planning now based on the best current understanding of Covid-19 and what is required for continued containment and mitigation. At the same time, this dynamic public health situation requires adaptive planning that can evolve as the science and circumstances do.
Despite the uncertainty, state policymakers, school leaders, and community leaders should develop plans based on the following assumptions informed by the most current guidance from public health officials.
Schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-20 Academic year but will reopen in the 2020-21 Academic year (albeit with the potential of localised, rolling closures for 14-28 days triggered by additional waves of infections).
Reopened schools will need modifications based on guidance from national, state and local Health Officials, which could include physical distancing, temperature screenings and frequent disinfecting of classrooms.
Accommodations will be needed for teachers, administrators, school staff and students who may be at heightened risk from Covid-19 due to their age or other health conditions.
A vaccine might not be available for 18 months or more, meaning that plans should take into account both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.
Guiding Principles
Four principles should guide decisions, preparations and actions as education leaders, community leaders and public officials work to reopen our nation’s schools. First, while Governors have the authority to close and open schools, these decisions are best made by consulting with those closest to the problem, including School Leaders, Health Officials, and Community Leaders. Second, schools have a responsibility to meet the continued needs of all students, including the unique needs of students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities and English language learners.
Third, schools have a responsibility to serve all students, even during times of disruption when remote learning is the primary delivery mechanism requiring students to connect from home to online instruction and resources. Fourth, given that school closures are triggered by Government action and that school systems cannot reasonably have been expected to plan for the current situation, state and federal officials have a responsibility to provide the resources schools need to help cover the additional costs of operating during a shutdown or in accordance with Public Health guidance.
The Public Health Framework for Reopening
Governors have used an unprecedented array of social distancing measures to ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the spread of Covid-19. These have included issuing stay-at-home orders, severely restricting travel, restricting the size of gatherings and closing non essential services, businesses and schools.
Flattening the curve provides two benefits: ensuring that hospitals are not overwhelmed and providing time for Medical Researchers to develop and deploy a vaccine. Given that a Covid-19 vaccine is not expected to be ready for at least another 18 months, social distancing measures must be relaxed gradually to protect vulnerable populations and prevent a rebound wave of infections.
Schools can only reopen in the context of a community’s gradual relaxation of the social distancing measures put in place. In fact, reopening schools is a crucial step in helping reopen other parts of the economy.
As such, state and school leaders must develop education plans that are closely tied to their state’s Public Health frameworks, which guide both the gradual relaxation of social distancing measures and the conditions under which those measures should be reactivated. These Public Health frameworks also outline the important Public Health accommodations that affect school operations.

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