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What It Will Take to Reopen Schools

It is crucial that schools reopen—safely—and it will take leadership, resources, and commitment to make that happen.

A woman Fatema Basrai in front of a white board using a projector to teach in her classroom

January 26, 2021

The pandemic has had an unimaginable toll on every aspect of our lives. From grocery shopping to schooling, fundamental pieces of the way we live have been turned upside down. 

As the pandemic continues on, we need to get schools open and students back in the classroom in a way that is safe for students, teachers, staff, and families. 

Prolonged school closures have had devastating effects on learning and the emotional well-being of students. Students from low-income backgrounds have faced particular challenges, including parents losing their jobs, families suffering food insecurity, students lacking access to the internet and devices needed to complete schoolwork, and more. School closures have also taken a toll on already overworked teachers who are burning out because of erratic hybrid and in-person teaching schedules with little to no support. Opening schools safely and responsibly requires new routines that allow for (and pay for) personal protective equipment, increased testing, additional cleaning supplies, physical distancing, and flexible policies.

Through my work at the Yale School of Public Health’s Office of Public Health Practice, I have the unique opportunity to support the application of innovative policies and tools that are helping to overcome the challenges faced by the pandemic. Our team has been working directly with local organizations, health departments, and school districts to support the implementation of a saliva testing solution, SalivaDirect that was created within our school. Saliva testing is a cheaper and less invasive way to test for COVID-19, and our goal is to support labs, schools, and community organizations across the country as they think through procedures for safely re-opening. Our interdisciplinary team is composed of scientists, researchers, public health practitioners, and local leaders who each work with their skill sets to support this initiative. Through our work, we have developed insight into what schools need to open safely and how policy makers and other leaders can support them.

It is imperative that the new administration prioritize direct federal dollars to K-12 schools in a way that is fast, focused, and most importantly, equitable. 

There are a number of policies and practices that can be implemented by school districts and city health departments, but there is a high need for coordination, organization, and of course, funding. Coordination and collaboration are the most important pieces for a safe reopening and consequently, the hardest to implement. This means that all levels of government, from the federal to the hyper local, have roles to play in ensuring safe and orderly school reopenings.

A great example of strong coordination is Denver Public School’s commitment to offer free, COVID-19 testing to all staff and students. This is possible through a partnership with the school district and COVIDCheck Colorado, a social benefit corporation. More collaborations like this will be instrumental to school reopenings.

Based on scientific guidance, here's a brief list of priorities to ensure that students can return to school—and that schools can safely stay open—which will require leadership, and of course, funding to succeed:

  1. Personal protective equipment (PPE): All teachers, staff, students, and families should have access to masks and face shields. Federal and local government dollars should be provided specifically for adequate PPE.

  2. Testing & Vaccines: School districts must work closely with their local health departments to set up testing for their school communities. Weekly testing can help keep schools safely open. There are tests available (like SalivaDirect) that offer easier, cheaper, and less invasive ways (as compared to nasal swabs) to screen for COVID-19. In addition, teachers and school staff must be on the priority lists for vaccines.

  3. Handwashing, hygiene, and cleaning practices: All schools should have adequate access to handwashing stations, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant. The responsibility to clean and sanitize should not fall solely on the shoulders of teachers and additional staff might need to be brought on. Ventilation systems must be tested (and replaced if needed) to ensure proper airflow.

  4. Physical distancing: Schools should ensure optimal spacing between students and teachers at all times. Utilizing small group cohorts will require more teachers and staff but is a safer way to teach and learn. This may be a challenge depending on building space. This guide explores how to repurpose space to provide more distancing.

  5. Flexible policies: Flexibility is key. School districts should have flexible attendance policies as well as staffing plans for students, teachers, and staff who are ill or might have been exposed to COVID-19. This could mean allowing students, teachers, and staff the ability to participate remotely if ill or exposed to COVID-19. For teachers and staff, this can also be having additional people on call in case someone needs to be remote. In addition, cumbersome and antiquated standardized testing needs to be replaced with qualitative measures of student learning and success.

  6. Support for Students with Special Needs: Ensure children with special needs are given the highest priority when it comes to accessing face-to-face learning opportunities. These students should be first to access buildings and classrooms when it is deemed safe to do so. Funding also needs to be prioritized for special education. This can mean extra support staff to ensure students are learning in a safe and comfortable environment. 

When the federal government steps up, local leaders must do their part, too. That means ensuring that any new funds are used for buying PPE for staff and students, testing is widely and easily available for school communities, investments are made to update infrastructure like handwashing stations and air conditioners, and salaries are covered for teachers and staff who are directly working with students. A priority must be given to students with special needs. Some children need extra support for their learning, and we must ensure they can get it.

The Biden administration is starting to “Build Back Better” and a clear priority must continue to be support for K-12 public schools.

Fatema Basrai (San Antonio ‘12) serves as the managing director of InnovateHealth Yale at the Yale School of Public Health. She started her career as a third grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas.

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