The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to the nation’s K–12 education system. The rush to respond to the pandemic led to closures of school buildings across the country, with little time to ensure continuity of instruction or to create a framework for deciding when and how to reopen schools. States, districts, and schools are now grappling with responding to the rapidly changing situation while also trying to address the consequences of disruptions to schooling and ensure the health and safety of students, families, and staff. The crisis is ongoing: even as schools are slated to begin a new academic year in Fall 2020, the United States will still be in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic with no available vaccine. School systems need guidance as the pandemic continues to unfold, and communities need evidence-based information to support appropriate decisions in the midst of often conflicting medical, social, and political pressures. Although intended to be helpful, contradictory messages—from education leaders, from nongovernmental organizations, from health officials, from politicians, from parents and families—complicate decision-making for everyone.
In addition, the impact of the pandemic has laid bare the deep, enduring inequities that afflict the nation in a wide range of areas, including the education system. The persistent disparities within the education system have come into sharp focus as schools and districts have grappled with how to provide meaningful learning experiences for all students as well as how to continue providing essential supports to families and communities, including meals and access to health care services while they operate their schools remotely. Plans for physically reopening and operating schools
during the pandemic must address how to provide equitable access to instruction and services for all children and families.
In response to the need for evidence-based guidance to support education decision-makers, the Board on Science Education of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in collaboration with the Academies’ Board on Children, Youth, and Families and the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Disease, convened an expert committee to provide guidance on the reopening and safe operation of elementary and secondary schools for the 2020–2021 school year (see Box 1-1).
The Committee on Guidance for K–12 Education on Responding to COVID-19 included members with a range of expertise that included education administration and policy, educational equity, school facilities, pediatrics, public health, and epidemiology. The committee met virtually five times over a 4-week period. To augment its own expertise, the committee heard testimony from outside experts on equity in education, child development, state education policy, school facilities, post-COVID inflammatory syndrome, and SARS-CoV-2 transmission in children. For more information about the committee’s process for gathering and assessing evidence, see Appendix A.
One of the primary tasks facing National Academies committees is to determine the bounds of its statement of task. Accordingly, the committee made judgments about the scope of its work.
First, although the subject of this report is reopening K–12 schools,1 this committee was not tasked with providing guidance on how to support student learning during the pandemic. To the extent that distance learning experiences are considered an alternative to in-person schooling or one component of a potential plan for reopening schools, the committee did consider the evidence on the outcomes of distance learning experiences. However, the committee was not tasked with drawing conclusions or making recommendations about how schools can support learning or address disruptions to student learning during this time.
Second, the committee determined that, given the short timeline for producing this report, an exhaustive, systematic review of all available guidance documents for schools and districts was not feasible. Since April 2020 and throughout the time the committee was developing the guidance
1 In the majority of schools in the United States, schools did not “close” so much as transition to distance learning strategies. In this report, the committee notes that it uses the term “reopening schools” as shorthand to refer to reopening of school buildings for in-person learning in Fall 2020.
in this report, numerous documents offering recommendations for school reopening have been released. These include guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from national education organizations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, from researchers in academia (for example, The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security), from individual states, and from professional organizations and teachers’ unions. These guidance documents vary in the extent to which they focus on best practices for public health, the practical concerns of implementation in reopening and operating schools, the needs of students, and the needs of the education workforce. The nature of the evidence base grounding these documents also varies: as of this writing, many critical pieces of the COVID-19 puzzle remained missing. There still was limited evidence and no consensus on the extent to which children—particularly those who are infected but without symptoms—can transmit the virus to
others, or on how effective the various strategies schools might employ to mitigate the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 might be. The committee examined the available guidance documents and looked for commonalities. As discussed in depth in this report, the committee was repeatedly struck by the lack of definitive direction for stakeholders in these documents, which effectively leaves school districts on their own to make judgments about reopening and operating schools.
Indeed, the committee found that proliferation of guidance documents was creating confusion at all levels about how to make sense of the varying perspectives on whether and how to reopen schools for in-person learning. The guidance in this report is intended to provide a framework for use by education leaders as they make high-stakes political and practical decisions about reopening schools for the 2020–2021 school year: to the extent possible, we attempted to formulate recommendations that would assist stakeholders in determining not only whether to reopen schools but also how to reopen schools. The committee recognizes the challenges faced by many schools with respect to operationalizing a number of the reopening strategies considered in this report, and where possible has attempted to comment directly on the relationship between feasibility and effectiveness. Ultimately, the goal is to integrate the most up-to-date evidence from medicine and public health with evidence about what is best for children and youth in view of the political and practical realities in schools and communities.
Because of the need to help stakeholders make sense of whether and how to reopen schools described above, the committee decided to structure this report in a way that would give readers both background about the challenges on the table as well as a series of tools for addressing those challenges. This decision lent itself to a report organization (described at the end of this chapter) that does not respond item-by-item to the questions posed in the statement of task. Rather than recapitulate the questions delineated above, the committee has integrated its responses to the statement of task into a broader narrative that describes the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, how the pandemic has affected education in the United States, and our consideration of how decision-makers should proceed. In order to assist readers, we have included a sentence at the outset of each chapter that points to the parts of the statement of task addressed in the respective chapter. Where limited evidence has hindered our ability to respond to the posed questions, we have tried to identify additional research needs.
Finally, this report is not intended to supplant existing guidance documents from government agencies such as the CDC and state departments of education. In responding to the statement of task, the committee has written a report that applies multiple scholarly perspectives to the most current evidence on the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 so that education stakeholders can make informed decisions about reopening schools. Where
possible, this report offers commentary intended to shed light on the challenges embedded in these decision-making processes, but stakeholders will need to review all relevant guidance documents in concert with one another in formulating cogent plans.
As the committee interpreted the statement of task, it became clear that issues of equity are among the chief challenges facing stakeholders as they decide whether and how to reopen schools. The ability of public schools to meet the needs of their communities is contingent upon the resources available to them: as we discuss throughout this report, many schools and districts are ill equipped to provide even the most basic services to students and families. More urgently, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has served to exacerbate these existing inequities by cutting children and families off from the resources that do exist. While many schools and districts have been able to leverage community resources to ensure that students are fed and cared for during the pandemic, there is no question that the shuttering of school buildings—and the consequent reliance on remote learning strategies—has meant that students are experiencing even more profound educational inequity than was the case prior to COVID-19.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated ongoing challenges facing the U.S. health care system. There are significant, longstanding disparities in both individual and community health outcomes by education, income, race/ethnicity, geography, gender, neighborhood, disability status, and citizenship status (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2017). These disparities arise from social, economic, environmental, and structural disparities that contribute to intergroup differences in health outcomes across different communities. The root causes of health inequities include the forces and structures that organize the distribution of power and resources differentially depending on race, gender, class, and other dimensions of individual and group identity (NASEM, 2017). As discussed later in this report, the COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened these disparities.
In this political and public health context, the long-standing inequities in education and health outlined above have the potential to compound each other in ways that could be catastrophic for some communities. As described later in this report, the communities most devastated by COVID-19 are often also the same communities with inadequately resourced schools. Thus, it is clear that for some communities, it will be incumbent upon stakeholders considering the risks, trade-offs, and costs of reopening schools to address these equity issues head on in determining effective strategies for responding to COVID-19.
Finally, the committee has written this report in the same moment as the Black Lives Matter protests. Driven by outrage around the murders of Black individuals by police, people have taken to the streets to protest the systemic racism woven into the fabric of U.S. society. Although this committee was not tasked with commenting on racial justice, it is not possible to talk about the role of schools in society without also acknowledging the long history of schools in perpetuating and reproducing systemic racism. This backdrop cannot be ignored as a contributing factor in how the nation will make sense of the many issues surrounding the reopening of schools.
Decisions around how to reopen schools are among the most complex and consequential of the pandemic. When the outbreak in the United States intensified in March, schools were among the first community activities to close physically, in recognition of their role as community gathering places and the priority of protecting children.
More is now known about COVID-19 than was the case when the decision to close schools physically and move to distance learning was made, but there is still more to learn. Thus far, the science has suggested that children are at lower risk of severe illness relative to adults, and many infections in children are either asymptomatic or very mild. However, the extent to which children with asymptomatic or subclinical infection are able to transmit the virus to others remains unknown. If children do transmit the disease efficiently, as they do with influenza, for example, physically reopening schools could accelerate the transmission of COVID-19 in a community.
Data needed to answer this and other important questions are unlikely to be available by the time the decision to reopen will have to be made. Regardless of these decisions, however, the committee emphasizes that so long as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, there cannot be 100 percent safety in reopening schools for in-person learning. Given this, school systems and their surrounding communities will have to weigh the risks and uncertainties of reopening for in-person learning against the educational and social risks and challenges associated with continuing to educate and support students using a distanced model.
This report is intended primarily to provide guidance for those tasked with setting rules and parameters around school reopening and determining strategies for mitigating the transmission of COVID-19. The report is intended to provide insight for decision-makers especially concerned with weighing issues of health and safety alongside educational priorities
and organizational conditions. Because of the nature of how schools are governed in the United States, the committee recognizes that the entity ultimately responsible for the final decisions around whether and how to reopen schools will vary across the country. For this reason, the committee wrote this report with multiple stakeholders in mind, and we expect this report will be useful to school administrators, teachers, and other relevant school staff who are seeking such guidance. The report should also be useful for policy makers and leaders at both the state and district levels, including governors, state superintendents, tribal leaders, and school board members. Other intended audiences include parents and community members who are directly affected by these decisions.
While the committee recognizes that many state, district, and school-based decisions related to school reopening are likely to be under way (if not completed) by the time of this report’s publication, we also recognize the dynamic reality of decisions around COVID-19. That is, given the constantly shifting nature of the regional spread of the virus, ongoing demand for state and local resources, and the myriad competing demands and priorities of school stakeholders, the process of assessing both whether and how to reopen schools is likely to be ongoing. Thus, the committee prepared this report with an eye toward developing a framework that would enable decision makers to continually revisit their decisions as circumstances change and new needs and constraints arise.
Moreover, the committee recognizes that the answers to these questions are, to a large extent, contingent upon who is included in the process of answering them. Later in this report, we address critical considerations concerning which stakeholders should be engaged in making decisions for states, districts, and schools, and attempt to identify where in the education system decisions can and should be made.
Chapter 2 provides an overview of the most up-to-date evidence about the spread of COVID-19, the course of the virus in children and youth (aged 4–18), and current understanding of the effectiveness of various public health measures for protecting individual and community health.
Chapter 3 examines the important role of schools in communities and the development of children and youth at different ages. Particular attention is given to the critical importance of considering the varying needs of different communities and the deep, structural inequities in the U.S. education system in making decisions about school reopening.
Chapter 4 integrates the evidence from Chapters 2 and 3 to provide guidance on how to determine whether schools should reopen for in-person operation in Fall 2020 and conversely whether additional closures may be
needed. The discussion in this chapter responds to questions 1 and 3 in the committee’s statement of task (Box 1-1).
Chapter 5 focuses on the range of strategies schools can and should use to maintain individual and community health once they reopen (whether partially or fully) for in-person learning. Strategies are considered from the perspective of what is most effective for maintaining health, what is practical and affordable for schools to adopt, and how a strategy can be implemented equitably. This chapter responds to questions 2, 3, 4, and 5 in the committee’s statement of task.
Chapter 6 lays out the committee’s recommendations and highlights the urgent research needed to understand more fully the role of children in transmission, the risks posed to the community’s health by operating schools in person, and the relative effectiveness of the wide range of mitigation strategies that schools are being encouraged to implement.
Discussions related to equity, which is called out in questions 3 and 6 in the statement of task, are threaded throughout the report, and the committee comments on this theme in an Epilogue at the end of this document.
Finally, Appendix A discusses the committee’s approach to gathering and reviewing evidence for this study. Appendix B lists the guidance documents reviewed for this report and provides hyperlinks for this guidance as of publication. Appendix C describes a series of examples of how districts are planning to reopen schools, and Appendix D contains biographical sketches of committee members and staff.