Parents are concerned.
Teachers are concerned.
Educators are concerned.
Public health authorities are concerned.
The question on everyone’s mind: when will it be safe to reopen schools again?
20 Questions to Answer to Reopen Schools Safely
Let’s look at the most recent information available to answer 20 of the most important questions facing parents, teachers, educators, and public health officials trying to decide when it’s safe to reopen schools.
1. President Biden wants to reopen schools in 100 days. What’s the plan?
“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” says President Biden. “If Congress provides the funding, we need to protect students, educators, and staff. If states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”
The incoming Biden administration has proposed a $400 billion pandemic response budget to increase vaccination rates and provide financial relief to schools, local governments, and small businesses. Here are some of the key proposed budget line items which affect (either directly or indirectly) the safe reopening of schools:
· $350 Billion Emergency Funding for State Local and Territorial Governments
Provides emergency aid to local governments hard-hit by tax revenue shortfalls to provide new funding sources for frontline workers, vaccine distribution, increase Covid testing, and costs associated with reopening schools.
· $130 Billion Fund to Help Schools Reopen
The plan provides for substantially increased school funding to modify school buildings for increased social distancing, reduced class sizes, personal protective equipment, and improved ventilation systems.
· Funding for 100,000 Public Health Workers to Manage Vaccine Outreach and Contact Tracing
Direct funding for 100,000 public health workers to established new vaccine outreach programs and enhanced contract tracing efforts, with particular emphasis placed on disadvantaged communities hard-hit by the pandemic.
· $50 Billion Expanded Testing Program
This funding would support increased testing by local governments and schools, including the purchase of rapid Covid tests and expanded lab capacity.
· $20 Billion National Vaccination Program
The proposal would help ramp up a national vaccination program similar to the massive polio vaccination campaigns of the 1950s, with funding for community vaccination centers and mobile units for rural areas.
· Emergency Paid Sick Leave and Medical Leave
Paid medical leave for those who do not have it will allow workers to stay home if they suspect they are sick (avoiding dangerous “presenteeism”) and help parents take care of sick children at home.
· 15% Increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefits
The proposal would increase SNAP benefits available to low-income families by 15% until October. Additionally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) would receive an additional $3 billion investment.
· Increase Minimum Wage to $15 per Hour
The federally mandated minimum wage for non-exempt employees would be increased from $7.25 to $15.00 per hour.
· Emergency Increase in Child Tax Credit
The proposal would expand child tax credits for one year, allowing families to receive a tax credit of up to $4,000 for a child under 13, or $8,000 for two or more children.
2. What’s the latest CDC guidance on Covid Safety at K-12 schools?
The CDC has ranked the relative risk of different school learning models from the lowest to the highest.
- Lowest Risk: Virtual only classes, activities, and events.
- Some Risk: Hybrid learning models that augment virtual classes with limited in-person learning, provided students and teachers follow scrupulous hygiene practices and remain in isolated “bubbles” or rigorously applied staggered schedules.
- Medium Risk: Hybrid learning models where many students engage in in-person learning in larger classrooms with some mixing of different groups of students and teachers across schooldays.
- Higher Risk: Full-time in-person learning activities and events with some mixing of different groups of students and teachers across schooldays.
- Highest Risk: Full-time in-person learning activities and events with students and teachers freely mixing between classes and activities, poor sanitary hygiene practices, and freely sharing objects.
3. What can facility managers do to make K-12 schools safer?
K-12 school facility managers have had to respond quickly to the challenges of conducting in-class learning during the Covid pandemic.
Some the primary strategies include reducing class sizes and spreading desks further apart to increase social distancing, increasing ventilation and classrooms, either by opening windows during temperate days or revamping ventilation systems to draw air away (ideally up and out of the facility), and adding transparent dividers for students, teachers, for administrative support staff must work close to one another.
The CDC has also created “Plan, Prepare, and Respond” toolkits for facility managers and administrators operating school and child care programs, including:
- COVID-19 Mitigation Toolkit
How to prevent the spread of Covid in your facility.
- Five-Step School Walk-Through Guide
This guide provides a hands-on approach to getting ready for in-person learning.
- How to Set up Your Classroom
Ways to modify layout and classroom behaviors to reduce virus risks.
- Guide for Teachers and Staff Returning to Class
What teachers, staff, and families need to know about returning to school.
4. What about unconventional or alternative schooling ideas?
During the spring, summer, and fall, many school districts experimented with conducting in-person learning within outdoor classroom spaces. The idea is appealing, thanks to the lower risk of catching the virus outdoors, but as the temperatures dropped across most of the country during the winter months, this idea becomes impractical for most mainstream school districts.
Son enterprising families with school-aged children have also taken it upon themselves to expand their social “bubble” to invite like-minded families with children to join together to create so-called “learning pods” whereby students come together in a group learning environment. Parents are discovering that duplicating the school classroom environment at home is difficult, and it’s not an option for most parents who lack the resources to fund this kind of effort.
5. Will there be enough money for schools to reopen?
The answer to this question depends upon how much of the proposed Biden budget gets enacted into law.
Many public school districts across the country find themselves in a dire financial situation as tax revenues coming into local governments have collapsed due to coronavirus lockdowns – creating what some analysts referred to as a fiscal “death spiral.”
Circumstances vary district by district, but many civil systems have been caught short by funding formulas that reimburse schools less money for remote learning compared to in classroom teaching.
Yet, the facilities still need to be maintained whether or not students are coming onto campus – and the costs and challenges of reopening schools are putting additional pressure on budgets to reconfigure facilities, change classroom layouts, provide additional PPE, improve ventilation and filtration systems, etc.
Some states, such as California, are considering stepping in to increase school funding for the school districts that reopen for in-class learning.
6. What do studies say about school children affecting the level of Covid infections in the community?
Researchers are trying to determine if and how reopening schools affects the level of Covid infections in the surrounding community.
One of the first studies of its kind, published by researchers at Tulane University, looked at the relationship between schools reopening and Covid-19 hospitalization rates. The scientists believe they have identified two different scenarios: in US counties where Covid 19 hospitalization rates remained below 36 to 44 per 100,000 cases per week, in-person school reopening was not a significant factor in increased hospitalizations. However, once hospitalization rates increased beyond those figures, there’s a possibility that schools could contribute to community spread (however, the data is not conclusive).
Researchers looking at the impact of schools reopening in Washington and Michigan also found that in school districts where transmission rates were low, in-person schooling did not seem to increase the spread of the virus. However, they found that reopening schools was associated with spreading the virus in communities that had a high positivity rate.
7. Is there a safety difference between bringing younger and older K-12 students back to school?
Many public health and medical researchers now believe that the youngest among K-12 students pose less risk to transmitting Covid than their older peers.
A study titled “COVID-19 Transmission in US Child Care Programs” published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that exposure to child care during the early months of the US pandemic was not associated with elevated risk for COVID-19 transmission to childcare providers.
We also know that, as children grow, their immune systems mature, which may explain why younger children appear to be less of a risk for both acquiring and transmitting Covid, while older teenagers (and especially college-age students) may pose a greater risk to the community.
More concrete data is needed, but in the meantime, public health and education policymakers have to work with the information they have, and many of them are recommending that, when it comes to reopening schools, priority be given to the youngest schoolchildren first because they pose the least risk, and they appear to benefit most from in-person instruction.
8. Which schools reopened – and how did they make the decision?
Scientific research doesn’t appear to be the driving factor for deciding whether school districts can reopen for in-person learning, however.
In a working paper published by Annenberg Brown University, researchers investigated 10,000 school districts across the country (about 75% of the total) and found that decisions to open or close schools had little or no relationship with the surrounding communities Covid 19 infection rates. Rather, researchers identified two primary factors: A) how strongly the district voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and B) the relative strength of the local teachers union. A third less important factor was the amount of competition school districts faced from private schools.
In recent weeks, however, local infection rates have increased to an alarmingly high level across many school districts, causing a greater number of schools that had opened to close once again, creating a whiplash effect for parents, teachers, and students who find it difficult to maintain some sense of continuity in their classroom learning.
9. Some districts have established testing thresholds for reopening. What are they, and how do they work?
In response to a resurgence of coronavirus infection rates across the country, many school administrators and state health officials have opted to create a set of conditions for reopening schools – one that’s more transparent and based on public health data such as community infection rates. When the conditions outlined in the guidelines are no longer met, such as Covid testing rates surpassing a predetermined threshold rate, the schools need to close again.
The CDC has created a threshold decision-making guide, called the Indicators for Dynamic Decision-making, for school district policymakers looking for advice on establishing their threshold policy.
Widespread testing is part of the equation, and many school districts are looking forward to the possibility of testing all students and teachers daily as part of their Covid virus transmission prevention programs. Minnesota has been a standout in this effort.
10. Is distance (remote) learning working for K-12 students?
Educators who have been able to conduct standardized tests on their students participating in remote learning programs have found they are falling behind significantly. There are reports that math proficiency has dropped between 5 to 10 percentile points and that reading skills are down as well, with a significantly higher number of young readers failing to reach their annual reading proficiency benchmarks.
Adding to these growing concerns are questions about how students can develop important socialization skills when participating in online classes as well as whether online learning is exacerbating the problem of excessive screen time and lack of physical activity.
11. How have teachers been able to evaluate students who can’t come in for standardized tests?
Conducting fair and accurate standardized tests has been difficult during the Covid 19 pandemic.
This also poses a challenge for policymakers at the state level who monitor (e.g. reward or punish) local school districts based on how well their students perform on standardized tests.
College and university admissions officers also have to make do when evaluating high school applicants – most are waving the requirement for submitting ACT and SAT scores. However, students seeking scholarships are finding that these hard-to-come-by tests remain a requirement for many scholarship programs.
12. What is the impact of in-classroom learning versus remote learning for different education cohorts?
Remote learning has been especially challenging for certain education cohorts, including students with different degrees of physical and/or learning disabilities, students of homeless families, or immigrant students without fluent English-speaking parents at home.
These students risk falling out of mainstream classes once schools reopen, or, even worse, will drop out of the education system entirely.
13. Are higher-income families moving away from local public schools?
Many parents with sufficient financial means have been quick to enroll their students in private schools that offer in-person education, which they consider to be superior to remote learning. Private schools also received significant funding from PPP loans as well as changes made during the Trump administration by the education department to allow emergency funding to extend to private schools.
14.Many lower-income workers are considered essential and have to go to work. How does this affect things?
Quite a few low-income breadwinners are performing jobs that are considered “essential” (from food service to industrial production) and, unlike many of the white-collar workers, cannot stay at home with their kids.
As a result, many lower-income families have found it difficult to accommodate their children attending remote learning classes in the home.
In addition to income inequality, racial inequality may be another concern.
Researchers at Columbia University used cell phone data to track movement at more than 100,000 schools and found that 58% of nonwhite students were primarily enrolled in remote learning, compared to only 36% of white students. Similar disparities were found among students with Lomas scores or limited English proficiency or those who were poor enough to qualify for free meals.
One promising innovation has come to light for parents of young children who need to work during the day – nighttime classes for kindergarten and first-grade students.
15. How much disparity is there in Internet access across the country, and what can be done about it?
Disparities between urban and rural Internet access has been a simmering problem for years, but it took on new importance as schools closed, and rural school districts tried to re-create the classroom experience online.
Bloomberg report on why Internet connectivity across rural America continues to lag behind.
In many rural areas, the Internet is either unavailable or too slow to allow for online video conferencing. In response, some districts created Wi-Fi parking lots, where Wi-Fi was broadcast to area schools or other community buildings, to allow teachers and school children to access a reliable signal. Another idea was the institution of Wi-Fi school buses, which could travel to remote areas and provide Wi-Fi access in the community.
States such as New Hampshire and Maine have stepped up emergency infrastructure programs to bring higher quality Internet connections to about areas. Current satellite systems can provide Internet connectivity, but users complain about the high cost and lagging connection times. Perhaps new systems, such as Elon Musk’s StarLink satellite Internet venture, will provide faster connectivity at a reasonable price, but only time will tell. In the meantime, rural communities remain at a significant disadvantage.
One alternative in the short run is for teachers to conduct classes on public access television, which can reach a wider swath of rural areas.
16. When will vaccination programs start to move the needle on Covid-19 infection rates?
After the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were given emergency authorization in late 2020, Dr. Fauci of the NIH bumped up his estimate for the number of vaccinations that would be needed for achieving a “herd” community to as much as 85%.
Unfortunately, the vaccine rollout has gone slowly – at first, due to teething problems with organizing vaccination programs followed by production constraints of the vaccine supply.
When predicting when the vaccination programs will start to push Covid-19 infection rates down significantly, we have to consider that several other vaccine candidates are still moving through the testing pipeline.
If one or more of the vaccine candidates (such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) proves to be as effective as the Pfizer or Moderna ones, then the supply constraints we’re experiencing now will ease off.
Vaccine uptake is also important. If a significant portion of the population decides against taking the vaccine, then our goal of achieving herd immunity will take that much longer.
If divided ministration is successful in achieving its stated goal of administering 100 million vaccine shots during the first 100 days of the new administration, then we should see significant reductions in the number of Covid cases across the country, which would be a reassuring first step toward reopening the majority of K-12 schools in the fall of 2021.
17. What effect could Covid-19 variants have on K-12 school reopening plans?
As viruses replicate, the chance for a potential mutation increases.
Most mutations are insignificant, but eventually, a variant of the original virus can emerge. To date, geneticists have identified significant Covid variants that have emerged (in southern California, the UK, South Africa, and Brazil).
So far, these variants do not appear to increase the severity of the disease, but rather, they make the virus easier to catch. (The UK variant can increase the baseline Ro transmissibility value by as much as 0.7.)
Vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna issued statements that they believe their vaccines remain effective against these new variants – but they could reconfigure their RNA-based vaccines as needed.
Experts say that it’s likely that one of these variants (most likely either the southern California or UK one) will become the dominant strain across the US by the end of March, which puts additional pressure on the urgent need to push forward with a national vaccination program as fast as possible. Otherwise, the healthcare system could become even more overwhelmed, and all schools would probably have to close for an extended period.
18. How many teachers have gotten Covid? How many have died?
Since the spring of 2020, researchers have called on the US government to release statistical breakdowns of Covid infections and Covid death by occupation, as is done in the UK.
Without this data, it’s difficult to estimate how many of the estimated 3.5 million full and part-time K-12 teachers have been affected by Covid.
(To get an idea of the potential scale of the epidemic in schools, we can look to statistics of other professions. The CDC reports that there were over 100,000 Covid cases and 641 deaths among US healthcare providers between February and July 2020.)
19. When can teachers get vaccinated?
There is a widespread call for putting teacher vaccinations on the priority list to help with reopening K-12 schools safely.
At present, however, each state sets its own priority list.
As the vaccine becomes more widely available, one question arises: should it be mandatory for teachers to be vaccinated? That’s a policy question that will have to be reckoned with in due course.
20. Will K-12 students get vaccinated in the future?
Children were not part of the initial vaccination trials conducted by Pfizer and Moderna, so we don’t yet have any data on whether these vaccines are safe or effective for school-aged children.
Moderna began conducting a study on children aged 12 to 17 this past December, and Web M.D. reports they are still looking for applicants. Meanwhile, Pfizer has enrolled children between the ages of 12 and 15 in its study.
Both vaccine makers are hoping to make the vaccine available for these cohorts in time for the fall 2021 school year.
Plans for testing the vaccine on younger children will come later, as these will require more development time to identify a safe, smaller dose that’s tailored to the requirements of young children.
Formaspace Is Your Education Facility Partner
When it comes time to furnishing your educational facility classrooms or laboratories, Formaspace is here to help.
We manufacture durable, modern custom furniture for our education clients here at our factory headquarters in Austin, Texas.
If you can imagine it, we can build it.
Contact your Formaspace Design Consultant today and find out why educational institutions across the country, including 400 colleges and universities, choose Formaspace.