Schools must plan for the next 9 months, not the next 9 weeks

Schools must plan for the next 9 months, not the next 9 weeks
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School districts around the country have been scrambling to start classes for 57 million pre-K-12 students in the fall with a mix of in-persononline and hybrid lessons. A dangerous assumption underlies these plans: If teachers, students and parents can just endure the next few months, things will get back to normal. 

That was the same assumption made last March, and now here we are, facing September with schools wrestling with many of the same issues. Even if a vaccine is tested and approved this fall, it will be many months before it is rolled out to everyone. Schools will face COVID-19 concerns for the entire school year and may wind up shifting their educational models if there’s a local outbreak. They should consider planning and investing accordingly. 

In-person or hybrid school, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, will require two changes: a sanitation regime that includes masks, and reducing the number of people sharing a classroom. This means schools will need more physical space as they spread students out for instruction or extra cleaning time. Some may have extra rooms or temporary buildings, but there are other options. In Denmark, currently unused museums, conference centers, houses of worship and libraries are being used to provide additional learning spaces. Some schools and universities, from a small-town school in Kashmir, India to Rice University, are taking a page from the 1918 pandemic and turning to outdoor, open-air learning (weather permitting). After natural disasters, U.S. school districts also have effectively used double shifts for teachers and students. 

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When it comes to upgrading infrastructure and installation of new equipment (sanitation and air-handling systems, for example) to meet safety standards, school districts could use more explicit federal guidance — and funding. For a district with eight schools and 3,200 students, the costs may run about $1.8 million and require significant staff time to set up and maintain. Struggling school districts could use federal or state help with implementation, procurement and technical assistance. 

Effective online and hybrid education also depends on technological infrastructure: universal internet access and devices. Pre-pandemic, estimates were that nearly 16 million school children lacked one or both of those things. If millions of students stay shut out of online instruction, that will likely widen an achievement gap that disadvantages rural, Black and Hispanic students the most. 

Some CARES Act or community funding has been used to purchase new laptops and hot spotsrefurbish donated computers and run WiFi hotspots out of buses or parking lots. But these efforts are insufficient. It is impractical to assume that any student will learn well throughout an entire academic year from the back seat of a parked car. (Communities could also invest in tutoring workforces to provide online or in-person help to students who struggle with learning outside of the traditional classroom.)

Finally, school districts need reliable real-time data on what strategies are working to keep teachers and students healthy and under what circumstances. Conflicting, politicized and incomplete evidence on the level of risk when schools open under varying scenarios is one reason that reopening schools has become so contentious. District leaders, teachers and families all likely feel they are making high-stakes decisions in the absence of the information they need. This too is a job that the federal government could take on, rolling out a national data collection effort on schools this fall. 

Schools cannot simply wait out this pandemic, nor will short-term planning and ad hoc infrastructure get them successfully through this academic year. If schools are to minimize educational losses, large scale investments should be made now. Concrete investment in schools and the equipment they need will not be wasted when COVID-19 is contained or vanquished.

Shelly Culbertson is a senior policy researcher focusing on education in emergencies, disasters, and post-conflict settings at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Shanthi Nataraj is a senior economist and Director of the Labor and Workforce Development Program at RAND. Jenna Kramer is an associate policy researcher at RAND.