Weighing the health risks of reopening K-12 schools in fall 2020 against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction, school districts should prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Opening schools will benefit families beyond providing education, including by supplying child care, school services, meals, and other family supports. Without in-person instruction, schools risk children falling behind academically and exacerbating educational inequities.
Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities recommends federal and state governments provide significant resources to districts and schools to help them cover the cost of COVID-19 precautions, including masks, enhanced cleaning, facility upgrades, and reconfigured classes.
While it will be impossible for schools to entirely eliminate the risk of COVID-19, the report says, young children in particular will be impacted by not having in-person learning and may suffer long-term academic consequences if they fall behind as a result. In grades K-3, children are still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention, and therefore struggle with distance learning. Schools should prioritize reopening for grades K-5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction.
COVID-19 Precautions for Reopened Schools
The report also recommends schools and districts take the following precautions to protect staff and students:
- Provide surgical masks for all teachers and staff. All students and staff should wear face masks. Younger children may have difficulty using face masks, but schools should encourage compliance.
- Provide hand washing stations or hand sanitizer for all people who enter school buildings, minimize contact with shared surfaces, and increase regular surface cleaning.
- Limit large gatherings of students, such as during assemblies, in the cafeteria, and overcrowding at school entrances, possibly by staggering arrival times.
- Reorganize classrooms to enable physical distancing, such as by limiting class sizes or moving instruction to larger spaces. The report says cohorting, when a group of 10 students or less stay with the same staff as much as possible, is a promising strategy for physical distancing.
- Prioritize cleaning, ventilation, and air filtration, while recognizing that these alone will not sufficiently lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
- Create a culture of health and safety in every school, and enforce virus mitigation guidelines using positive approaches rather than by disciplining students.
The report says the cost of implementing these COVID-19 precautions will be very high, totaling approximately $1.8 million for a school district with eight school buildings and around 3,200 students. These costs are coming at a financially uncertain moment for many school districts, and could lead to funding shortfalls. While the size of the funding shortfall will depend on how well-resourced a school district is, many districts will be unable to afford implementing the entire suite of mitigation measures, potentially leaving students and staff in those districts at greater risk of infection.
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