Reopening and Operating Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The shuttering of schools across the United States in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic made clear how indispensable public schools are to American life. Communities faced grave social and economic consequences, including a rise in child hunger, employment instability and what some experts are referring to as a mental health crisis among children as they have been deprived of learning and socialization. These dangers are exacerbated for Black, Latinx, and Native American communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

As infection rates continue to rise in 2022 and schools are once again closing, it is vital that school districts have plans and mechanisms in place to keep students and communities safe. LDF’s Reopening and Operating Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic report issues guidance and recommendations for schools to protect the health and safety of students, and ensure equitable access to education.

Beyond education, public schools serve as a cornerstone of support for communities and families‚ providing students with meals, safety, health screenings, and other social supports, as well as serving as community hubs for neighborhood activities and civic engagement. Schools have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of students, and ensure equal educational opportunities during the pandemic.

We recognize the unique challenges faced by school districts as they make plans to re-open. But the challenges faced by parents — especially low-income and parents of color — are also uniquely challenging. Districts should not force Black families to choose between their health and the education of their children. Safe, effective, and equitable school operations must include equitably distributing school funding, implementing public health practices during in-person schooling, providing students with equitable access to school resources during remote learning, adopting flexibility in measures of student engagement and assessment, expanding school resources to address the trauma experienced by students and their families, and ensuring that educators have the necessary resources and training. Such an approach will provide all students with the high-quality education they deserve.

Protect Public Health

Schools must ensure the physical safety of all students, staff, and communities.

Research shows that a layered strategy to prevent infection and control transmission is essential to safely operating in-person schooling during a pandemic. Educators, in-school staff, and school transportation staff must be prioritized in local vaccination efforts. In order to ensure safety during in-person school, all school faculty and staff should be vaccinated, and all students and staff should wear masks at school.

Additionally, due to the well-documented racial disparity in access to COVID vaccines, Black and Latinx communities are at disproportionate risk of harm from the pandemic. Hospitalizations for children with COVID-19 has increased in recent months. The FDA has now updated the eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine to include kids 5 and up. This still leaves millions of younger children unvaccinated and at-risk of COVID-19 infections. A universal mask mandate is imperative for any safe return to in-person schooling.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 among students can quickly spread to school staff and the larger neighboring community. The low vaccination rates in this country, coupled with the potential for spread of COVID-19 by school age children, underscore the urgent need for schools to continue to prioritize public health in decisions about school operations. 

Safety measures must go beyond the classroom. Schools have a responsibility to protect the health of their students as they travel to and from school. Given that the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases of Black and Native populations seem to be significantly connected to the use of public transit, it is essential that school districts work with transit authorities to ensure that students using public transportation are safe in the route to and from school. The same infection and prevention control measures must be implemented on school-operated transportation.

Schools can serve as vaccination sites, and provide accessible and trusted information about  COVID-19  vaccines to their community. Schools have a responsibility to actively protect the health and well-being of all members of the school community, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Ensure Equitable Access to School Resources During COVID-19 School Closures

Schools must ensure universal access to instruction, and necessary school-based services.

While all students have experienced diminished opportunities to learn resulting from the pandemic, schools serving mostly Black or Latinx students have experienced learning loss disproportionately, especially for grades K-3. Food insecurity and lack of access to the necessary technology for virtual learning were a major factor contributing to learning loss.

When in-person instruction is not safe, all students must have access to: 1) meals and essential school-based services, and 2) high-quality distance learning, including high-speed broadband internet, adequate electronic devices, and technology support.

Bridging the Digital Divide
More than 55 million students transitioned to distance learning during the pandemic; yet, at the beginning of 2021, 12 million children remained disconnected or under-connected. The failure to bridge this digital divide has been and remains consequential for tens of thousands of Black and Latinx students during pandemic-induced school closures. In Detroit, almost 20% of Black households did not have resources for online learning, as compared to about 8% of white households in the city. 

States should regularly track and publicly report on student access to high-speed broadband internet and appropriate devices necessary for distance learning, disaggregated by race, gender, household income, and disability status. Students and families must not be charged additional fees for access to devices or required to pay costs associated with the use of devices, as this would disproportionately impact low-income students and students of color.

Schools must ensure that students have access to meals.
Released in May 2020, a survey of school nutrition directors representing nearly 2,000 districts found that 80% were serving fewer meals during the pandemic than when school was in session. The majority indicated a reduction of 50% or more. The Urban Institute reported that 40% of Black families with school-age children were food insecure in September 2020, compared to 15% of white families. If classroom instruction returns online, schools must still ensure that students have access to meals, and districts have a system in place to distribute meals.

States must opt-in to needed child nutrition waivers and equip districts with the necessary resources to distribute school meals equitably. Districts should collect and report data on school meal distribution to identify gaps and better target resources. Schools and districts must communicate with families to identify barriers, including easily accessible and user-friendly student and parent surveys. Schools and districts must modify pickup and distribution methods and timelines tailored to the challenges identified by students and parents.

Establish Equitable, Pedagogically-Sound, and Culturally Inclusive Instruction and Assessment

Schools must use their resources to develop programs that will address learning loss with a racial equity lens.

Every district should ensure equal educational opportunities to all students, and implement evidence-based solutions to address the loss of instructional time, which has disproportionately impacted students of color. 

The suspension of statewide standardized testing has demonstrated that assessments and learning are not dependent on them. We must take this opportunity to abandon reliance on biased and harmful high-stakes testing regimes and instead design more equitable and culturally relevant assessments that more accurately measure students’ learning.

Schools should not rely on practices, like grade retention or holding students back and inflexible tracking, that disproportionately burden or impact Black students. Across all grade levels, Latinx and Black students are 1.5 times more likely to be held back than white students. Students who repeat a grade usually have lower long-term academic performances and are more likely to experience behavioral problems, lower self-esteem, and lower rates of school attendance. Students experiencing low academic performance are better served by early and intensive targeted interventions, including early warning systems, special needs testing early intervention, intensified learning, and performance assessments instead of high-stakes standardized testing.

Social and Emotional Learning Must Be Prioritized

Students deserve the right to return to schools that are physically and psychologically safe.

Schools must be equipped with the necessary resources to mitigate the stress and trauma stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic school closures. Crucially, schools must immediately end their reliance on policing and the juvenile justice system for school discipline. Schools should stop issuing suspensions and other needlessly punitive disciplinary policies.

Black students have continued to be subjected to over-policing and the criminalization of age-appropriate behaviors, even during distance learning. Police were dispatched to the home of a 12-year-old child for briefly playing with a green and black toy gun during virtual class. He was later suspended. A judge sent a 15-year-old student in Michigan was sent to juvenile detention in the height of the pandemic for not completing her online schoolwork. Police were called on a seven-year old with autism and a sensory processing condition who took off his mask.

School districts must abolish all school-based law enforcement programs, remove police from schools, and halt referrals to the juvenile court system. Districts should use the funding spent on policing to increase the hiring of nurses, counselors, social workers, and school psychologists. 

School districts should stop all suspensions, and develop trauma-informed and supportive discipline policies. Students should not be disciplined during distance learning for not turning their cameras on, the condition of their surroundings, or minor uniform/attire infractions. Districts should require schools to report any disciplinary action taken against students in distance learning, including the specific school policy violation and the type of disciplinary action administered, maintain the data in an accessible format and remedy issues identified and racial disparities. Schools should actively communicate with students to address absenteeism non-punitively and identify barriers to reconnect students to school. States should limit the use of punitive responses to absenteeism and truancy, including the banning of referrals to the criminal justice system.

School reopening plans must also include strategies to address the overall mental health and well-being of Black students, who have been disproportionately impacted by the economic and health consequences of the pandemic.  Trauma-informed care should be integrated into both online and in-person schooling to meet the mental health needs of students and to create a positive and healthy school culture. 

An Equitable Education Requires Equitable School Funding

Funding must be equitably distributed, with sustained funding to address the long-term effects of school closures.

State and local decision-makers must ensure school budgets and expenditures reflect a commitment to systemic reform and racial equity, and are responsive to the needs of students, educators, and communities of color. Lawmakers must not condition the availability of school funds on in-person learning, especially when such proposals would have a disparate impact on schools and districts that primarily serve Black students and other students of color.

In March 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law, which included an unprecedented $122 billion investment in our nation’s public schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. State and local education agencies should use the funds to support a safe reopening by: purchasing education technology, providing mental health services and supports, implementing school facility repairs and improvements, preventing teacher layoffs, and supporting individuals who graduated from high school during the pandemic but have not transitioned to college or career (e.g. job training, assistance with college applications, and financial literacy).

Schools must address racial disparities in school infrastructure. Many Black students attend schools with unsafe water conditions, hazardous air quality, and insufficient ventilation and classroom space— all of which pose an increased health risk for students during the pandemic.   States should reexamine school funding formulas and other budgeting practices to ensure that schools enrolling a higher percentage of Black students or low-income students are not mandated to return to school buildings that will expose them to greater COVID-19 risk. Additional investment is crucial to cover critical infrastructure expenditures, such as broadband, safe drinking water, and modernized physical school buildings.