Principles to Guide School Reopening Decisions

Written by: Erica Manoatl
Date Posted: July 24, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted countless aspects of the lives of Colorado’s children and families, including their access to and experience with public education. As is the case for the rest of the nation, our school districts are now in the difficult position of determining whether and how students and staff will be welcomed safely into school buildings this fall; similarly, Colorado’s families face the increasingly difficult task of deciding whether in-person, remote or hybrid learning is the safest option for their children.

The Children’s Campaign has compiled high quality and up-to-date data and research on the risks related to COVID-19 and the reopening of schools, as well as the risks of keeping schools closed, to help inform local decision-making on this issue. Colorado’s public schools educate more than 913,000 children, and decisions around whether to reopen and how to operate schools need to thoughtfully balance several major considerations, including:

  • the health and safety of all children, and where they will spend their days if not in school;
  • the health and safety of all students and staff if they return to school in person, and the impact of returning to the physical school environment on the people they live with;
  • the effectiveness of remote learning for students, educators and districts, including limitations and disparate impacts on students of color, young students, students in rural areas and students in low-income families; and
  • the burden of remote learning on parents, as well as their need to work to support their families and our state and local economy.

As of July 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends districts prioritize having students physically present at schools in the fall and put forward several specific safety recommendations for reopening schools. Colorado’s Metro Denver Partnership for Health, which includes the public health agencies serving Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, also supports the reopening of schools and has outlined additional recommendations. In addition to supporting reopening, the National Academies of Sciences recommends a strong partnership and consistent feedback cycle between schools and public health officials, so that reopening decisions may be revisited and relative risks reevaluated when outbreaks occur in communities.

It is important to understand that many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unknown and the knowledge base is changing daily, leading to greater clarity on some topics while illuminating new areas for investigation. This means everything we currently understand about infection and transmission, long-term health impacts, and the effect of large-scale socioeconomic disruptions comes from preliminary data and research that may be disproven at any time. It is likely that there are additional impacts related to the coronavirus, reopened schools and closed schools (with learning happening remotely) that have not yet been discovered by the public health community. To that end, communities should adopt a relative risk approach when making decisions about reopening schools for in-person learning, where local timely data inform the calculation of the risks of reopening versus the risks of remaining closed.

The table below features an overview of the documented risks identified so far by the research community and the Children’s Campaign, though additional risks are likely to be identified in the coming weeks and months:

Risks to consider for reopening schools Risks to consider for keeping schools closed
· Likelihood of COVID-19 infection and transmission among students, school staff and the families they go home to, given local case counts and outbreaks

· Heightened risk for severe cases of COVID-19 among special populations of students, school staff and their families

· Current and evolving understanding of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children or MIS-C (a rare but potentially life-threatening inflammatory condition), and warning signs for the condition

School sites often serve as sites of well-being for kids and families, therefore extended closures likely exacerbate:

· Potential negative health outcomes including hunger and food insecurity, child maltreatment, and declining mental health

· Potential for negative learning outcomes from continued remote learning including learning loss and exacerbated achievement gaps, limited student access to instruction and individualized learning services, and a decline in educator preparedness and morale

· Potential for negative outcomes in the area of family economic security, including decreased parent employment and the related negative impacts on economic recovery

 

Given the many contributing and evolving factors related to reopening schools, the Children’s Campaign recommends that these important decisions are guided by the following principles:

  1. Agency of students, families and school staff to make the decision that is best for them

Colorado families and school staff should have all available information about the relative risks involved with returning to in-person instruction or continuing with remote education, as well as full authority over their choice of instructional environments this fall. All students should have access to quality remote options, and there should not be penalties of any kind for staff and families who choose to remain remote. The chosen learning environment of families and staff must be able to change at any time given new evidence on COVID-19. Finally, it is also important to note that without additional financial supports for working parents, many families cannot easily choose to allow their children to learn remotely.

Students and staff in special populations are at increased risk of developing severe COVID-19; this includes students and staff who themselves are not members of special populations but who live with or interact often with people who fall into these groups. These individuals should have all the available information on their personal risk associated with returning to in-person learning. In order to respect student, family and employee privacy, students and school employees should not be required to disclose their personal health information for any reason. Also, it is possible that health conditions (such as pregnancy) could change over time – and in those cases, privacy should be maintained. According to the CDC, special populations include:

  1. Older adults, especially those over the age of 65
  2. Children and adults with disabilities, developmental and behavioral disorders, and/or those who are experiencing homelessness
  3. Children and adults living with certain underlying health conditions including:
    • Cancer
    • Chronic kidney disease
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
    • Obesity (those with BMIs of 30 or higher)
    • Serious heart conditions (including heart failure, coronary artery disease and/or cardiomyopathies)
    • Sickle cell disease
    • Diabetes (types 1 and 2)
    • Asthma (moderate to severe)
    • Cerebrovascular disease
    • Cystic fibrosis
    • Hypertension or high blood pressure
    • Neurologic conditions (including dementia)
    • Liver disease
    • Pulmonary fibrosis
    • Thalassemia
  4. Children and adults who are immunocompromised due to any of the following:
    • Immune deficiencies
    • HIV
    • Solid organ transplant
    • Blood or bone marrow transplant
    • Use of corticosteroids or other immune weakening medications
  5. Children who are considered “medically complex”, who have serious genetic, neurologic and/or metabolic disorders, and those with congenital heart disease (heart disease since birth)
  6. Individuals who are pregnant
  7. Individuals who smoke
  8. Health and educational equity

Every choice facing schools and districts is being made against a backdrop of entrenched and immoral economic, educational and social inequities, made more visible by the disparate impacts of the pandemic on certain communities. Without careful attention, plans to reopen schools or remain remote could exacerbate these inequities. The evolving evidence indicates:

  1. Most people who have gotten COVID-19 have not gotten very sick, and a small group have experienced serious issues. For those who develop serious issues, however, deaths due to COVID-19 are disproportionately high for black and Hispanic Coloradans of all ages.
  2. Students of color are more likely to lack internet access and therefore to lack access to remote education. Experts predict learning losses for children of color will be greater during this period compared to their peers, and achievement gaps will be exacerbated.
  3. Low-income students and students in rural areas are also more likely to lack internet access, which will likely result in significant learning losses.
  4. Younger students who are less independent may have more difficulty learning remotely. The National Academies of Sciences recommends that our youngest students, those in grades preK-5, be prioritized for in-person learning.
  5. Students with disabilities may not receive adequate services while learning remotely.

The calculation of relative risk for these students and staff is more complex. The potential for additional negative impacts from in-person and remote learning for these groups should be considered and planned around in reopening models; otherwise, disparities in COVID-19 outcomes are likely to compound with longstanding inequities in the public education system to have catastrophic consequences for some communities.

While many schools and districts have been able to leverage local resources to ensure that students are cared for during the pandemic, there is no question that the shuttering of school buildings—and the consequent reliance on remote learning strategies—has meant that students are experiencing even more profound educational inequity than was the case prior to COVID-19. The children of essential workers – who do not have the option of staying home and whose parents are already exposing the family to potential risk through their job – are more likely to be students of color and attend our least resourced schools and districts. These students and families, and all of those who experience the greatest barriers to opportunity, should be centered in any school closure decisions.

III. Availability of resources to effectively implement mitigation strategies

The resources available to schools will be an important determinant of cleanliness and the potential for virus transmission within a school site. Based on what is currently known about the spread of COVID-19, districts should, at a minimum:

  1. Prioritize mask wearing by all school staff and students above the age of 10 (and encourage mask wearing all students age 3 and over);
  2. Provide resources for hand washing and sanitizing;
  3. Prioritize ventilation and air filtration in schools and school buses, and whenever possible utilize outdoor spaces for learning;
  4. Create small cohorts of students to limit interaction and exposure;
  5. Promote physical distancing; and
  6. Limit large gatherings.

Additionally, the availability of rapid tests and results will be important to detect and control outbreaks.

However, implementing these mitigation strategies fully requires significant resources. Because of Colorado’s inequitable way of funding schools, some communities will find it impossible to secure these resources without significant levels of additional state or federal funding. Weighing relative risk, districts with the ability to pay for “gold standard” mitigation strategies may feel more comfortable reopening buildings and remaining open despite fluctuating levels of COVID-19 community spread, while districts with fewer resources may find it more difficult to open at all and may need to be more sensitive to local case counts.

If districts cannot open to all students, we urge them to prioritize providing safe places for meeting the health and mental wellbeing needs of students whose families cannot meet basic needs without having a safe place to send their kids during the day. We call on our state legislators to ensure that no community or student is left behind because of lack of resources or inability to supplement inadequate support from the state with local tax increases and philanthropy.

  1. Flexibility and rapid communications

Outbreaks of the virus appear to occur and affect communities quickly. As local case counts inform the potential for infection and transmission in schools, strong partnerships between districts and public health officials should be built so that data can be shared quickly and reopening decisions can be regularly revisited.

The National Academies recommends that local decision-makers and education leaders develop a mechanism like a local task force to allow for input from representatives of school staff, families, local health officials, and other community interests to inform decisions related to reopening schools. Such a task force could determine educational priorities and community values related to opening schools, be explicit about financial, staffing, and facilities-related constraints, and establish a plan for ongoing decisions, including how those decisions will be communicated. This would allow districts and schools to be prepared to close on short notice in response to rapidly changing local prevalence of COVID-19, with a communication plan in place to contact families, students and staff swiftly. Reopening decisions for the 2020-21 school year should not be treated as static decisions, and families should know that opening status can change at any time.

In making the difficult decisions about whether and how to reopen schools this fall, we know that one size does not fit all, that local context about community spread and level of COVID cases is paramount, and that every district will need to undertake a process that involves families, educators, public health experts and community leaders in the difficult task of how to redesign and reimagine what education will look like in these uncertain times.

Because individual decisions can be made only within the inequitable systems we have built, these decisions are personal and political. This document includes the following recommendations for federal, state and local policymakers:

  • Ensuring there are no penalties for staff or students who chose to remain in remote settings;
  • Providing financial support for low-income working parents so that they can make the best choice for their family without jeopardizing their financial security or their health;
  • Ensuring the availability of widespread, accessible COVID-19 testing with rapid results; and
  • Ensuring that all schools and districts have the financial resources they need to open as safely as possible.

Explore our compilation of the latest data and research studies here.

Erica Manoatl

About Erica Manoatl

Erica Manoatl is the Research Analyst for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. In this role, she supports the organization’s research priorities, data analysis, and writing in all issue areas. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from George Washington University and a Master of Public Health in Population and Family Health from Columbia University.