This spring has been a stark reminder of just how vital our schools are. Schools connect students with peers and mentors, channel energy into productive pursuits, teach essential academic skills and give overwhelmed parents room to breathe and work. Today’s remote learning efforts are, at best, an inferior substitute. And, when we add in the off-the-chart calls to abuse and suicide hotlines, as well as parental concerns about screen time and depression — it’s clear that America’s children are paying a heavy price for school closures.
A number of public health officials, including the ever-cautious Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony Fauci Auschwitz Memorial says RFK Jr. speech at anti-vaccine rally exploits Holocaust tragedy Thousands descend on DC for anti-vaccine mandate rally Sunday shows - Russia standoff over Ukraine dominates MORE, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have already indicated that they expect schools to plan to reopen in the fall. When governors and public health officials give schools the go-ahead, schools must be ready to go. But in order to fulfill this obligation, the planning must start now.
However, in many communities, reopening will not mean business as usual. Just what will it take to get schools ready, amidst enormous uncertainty?
To tackle that question, we worked with a task force of 19 bipartisan educational leaders — including former state chiefs, superintendents, federal education officials, and school leaders — to develop a blueprint to help states, communities, and schools address these challenges.
Here are five key places to start.
Coordination, communication, and flexibility will be crucial. Situations will vary profoundly across states and between different communities within the same state. Meeting local needs and addressing community concerns will be make-or-break for planning efforts. Schools will have to coordinate in new ways with state and local health officials. They’ll need to communicate with stakeholders so that students, families, educators and community members are clear on expectations for academics and public health.
Schools will have to examine every aspect of the school day — from classroom spaces to class schedules — and adjust to address new public health guidance. For instance, schools need to devise plans that reflect physical distancing protocols or use temperature checks to screen students. All of this will have obvious implications for staffing and costs — and is a budget line that Washington should help address.
Reopening schools will also mean new challenges for staffing. Many staff (and some students) will be at-risk from COVID-19 due to age or health conditions, raising questions about how to appropriately protect their well-being. Districts and teachers’ unions should work together to revisit aspects of their labor agreements to help schools adopt new protocols and ensure that vulnerable teachers are able to work in ways that are safe and productive. And as school budgets, responsibilities and models evolve, schools and districts must be prepared to reevaluate their staffing needs.
Health officials believe we are likely to see additional waves of the coronavirus in the fall and next year. Schools should prepare for possible intermittent closures and have a continuity of learning plan in place that serves all kids with either online resources or printed materials. Addressing home connectivity gaps will be essential to ensuring students can participate in remote learning.
This disruption to the school year has created broad academic challenges for students, particularly those most vulnerable before the crisis occurred. Schools may need to extend the school day or year to help students catch up on lost instruction. And states should commit now to ensuring their assessments are administered in the spring of 2021 to help identify students who need extra help and better target assistance to close learning gaps.
Educators can’t do this alone. They’ll need the support of state and federal policymakers, local officials, and community leaders. And they’ll need to do it together, with their parents, students and staff. It’s a big lift, but a vital one. And that’s why the planning must start now.
John P. Bailey is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, former White House advisor, and former Deputy Policy Director at the Dept. of Commerce where he worked on the 2005 National Pandemic Preparedness Strategy. Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. They are the lead authors on the new AEI report, “A Blueprint for Back to School.”