Educators’ two-year journey with the coronavirus pandemic started as early as Feb. 25, 2020, with a blunt call for school and district leaders, staff, and families to prepare for the coming disruption: “You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures,” Nancy Messonnier, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a press briefing that day. “Ask about plans for teleschool.”
By the end of March 2020:
- COVID-19 had been declared a global pandemic by The World Health Organization,
- Education Week had recorded the first death of an educator linked to the virus,
- School buildings faced a near-total shutdown nationwide, and
- Congress had passed the first of three federal financial aid packages, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included money to help schools with emergency costs related to mitigating the spread of the virus and supporting students.
In that same two-year timespan, educators were elevated as pandemic heroes—and later vilified as obstructionists for not opening school doors and classrooms quickly enough. Demands were just as vehement to keep schools closed and to deliver innovative processes, technology, and safeguards to keep students safe and learning productivity high.
This timeline captures how policymakers, federal agencies, two presidents, teachers’ unions, public health officials, and others wrestled with the protocols needed to get students back in schools learning and thriving, amid illness, deaths, three viral variants, and unremitting public pressure.
Coronavirus may yet graduate from pandemic to endemic status this calendar year, eased by vaccines, additional treatments, and immunity from prior infections. But the educational obstacles in the pandemic’s wake leave schools with a steep climb to boost academic growth and support the mental and emotional health issues that many students and educators carry from the pandemic.
Staff writers Evie Blad, Catherine Gewertz, Sarah Schwartz, Madeline Will, senior digital news specialist Hyon-Young Kim, and associate art director Vanessa Solis contributed to this article.
COVID-19 has shaken the education landscape. Here are key milestones.
Click each tab below to explore educators’ two-year journey with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jan. 19, 2020: The first recorded COVID-19 illness in the United States
An urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Wash., records the nation’s first COVID-19 case.
Feb. 25, 2020: CDC warns schools to prepare for ‘teleschool’ disruptions
Nancy Messonnier, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, holds a press briefing with a message to prepare for inevitable disruption in school routines because of COVID-19.
Feb. 27, 2020: Coronavirus scare prompts a school to shut down
The first school shuts down because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Bothell High School in Washington state closes for two days for disinfection after an employee’s relative gets sick and is tested for the coronavirus.
March 11, 2020: The World Health Organization declares coronavirus a global pandemic
By month’s end, principals, superintendents, and then governors act to stop the virus’ spread and close schools across the nation.
March 23, 2020: New York educator an early casualty
Dez-Ann Romain, 36, a Brooklyn principal, is one of the first K-12 educators in the United States to die from COVID-19. Romain was the principal of the 190-student Brooklyn Democracy Academy in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. New York City—which was an early epicenter of the virus—had closed schools to students on March 16, but teachers and principals continued to come to work for a few days after the closure.
March 26, 2020: USDA waives school nutrition rules, making it easier for schools to serve grab-and-go meals
Under a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver, parents can pick up “grab-and-go” school meals from school nutrition workers, even if their children aren’t present. “Typically, children would need to be present to receive a meal through USDA’s child nutrition programs,” then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says in a memo. “However, USDA recognizes that this may not be practical during the current COVID-19 outbreak.”
March 27, 2020: Congress passes the CARES Act, with $13.2 billion for states and local school districts
The first COVID assistance package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, emerges from Congress as a response to the early days of the pandemic, as schools rack up emergency costs for remote learning and personal protective equipment.
April 2020: Educators’ stress skyrockets due to the pandemic
In the rush to distance-learning, the nation’s teachers scramble to manage unfamiliar technologies, to retrofit—or reinvent—their lessons, and to juggle emails, texts, and calls from principals, parents, and students.
April 2, 2020: All states are excused from federally-required statewide testing
The Education Department excuses every state from administering standardized tests that are required by federal law, something that hasn’t happened since the federal government first required states to test students’ achievement in 1994.
May 20, 2020: CDC issues first guidance on reopening schools
Education groups pressure federal agencies to provide clarity about how to safely operate schools as they begin to make plans for both academic and logistical issues associated with starting the new school year. The CDC offers guidance on issues like disinfecting surfaces, reducing students’ contact with peers on buses and in the classroom, and daily health checks. It also recommends that common areas like lunchrooms be closed.
May 2020: Nearly all states say school buildings would be closed for the rest of the academic year
Forty-eight states, four U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have by this time ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year, affecting at least 50.8 million public school students. By early May, 80 percent of teachers report in an EdWeek Research Center survey interacting with the majority of their students daily or weekly, either online or in-person.
June 2020: Schools find creative ways to mark graduation day for Class of 2020
From car parades and quarantine diplomas made of toilet paper to signs on lawns and across entire streets, schools take many different approaches to celebrating the Class of 2020.
July 8, 2020: Trump threatens to withhold federal funding to schools that do not reopen
President Donald Trump says his administration “may cut off funding” for schools that don’t resume face-to-face instruction, and points to CDC reopening guidelines that he calls impractical and expensive. The next day, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says that rather than “pulling funding from education,” her department supports the idea that students in places where schools do not reopen should be able to take federal money and use it where they can get instruction in-person.
July 23, 2020: CDC stresses the importance of in-person learning
The CDC revises its school guidance to stress the importance of in-person learning. About “7.1 million kids get their mental health service at schools,” then-CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield says in a congressional hearing. “They get their nutritional support from their schools. We’re seeing an increase in drug use disorder as well as suicide in adolescent individuals. I do think that it’s really important to realize it’s not public health versus the economy about school reopening.”
July 28, 2020: AFT moves to delay reopening of schools to protect teachers
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says the union would pursue various tactics, including lawsuits and strikes, to keep schools from reopening without adequate safety precautions. “If authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve ... nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes,” she says at a remote meeting of the national teachers’ union’s biennial convention.
July 28, 2020: Fauci says there are still unanswered questions about how the coronavirus is spread
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, tells educators in a virtual town hall that when it comes to reopening school buildings for in-person instruction, there are still many unanswered questions about how the coronavirus is spread by children, and that teachers will be “part of the experiment.” His comment sparks uproar on Twitter from teachers, who say they didn’t sign up to be part of such an experiment.
Fall 2020: Many districts opt to start the school year in remote learning
Some districts provide hybrid instruction, and some are able to offer full in-person instruction to all students.
Sept. 2020: Federal vaccine distribution plan says states should prioritize teachers and school employees, alongside other critical workers
Not only does a new federal plan identify teachers and school employees as priority recipients of a vaccine, it also identifies U.S. schools as a crucial partner for administering the shots.
December 2020: Teachers in line for the first doses of COVID vaccines
A wave of states announce that they will prioritize teachers and school employees in their vaccine distribution plans, but most states—if not all—are still focused on administering vaccines to health-care workers and long-term care residents.
Dec. 27, 2020: Second federal COVID aid package provides $54.3 billion
The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act allocates more than $190 billion to help schools pay for tutors and cleaning supplies and millions of computing devices.
January 2021: Biden calls for unified efforts to reopen schools within the first 100 days of his administration
A 200-page federal plan and executive orders from newly elected President Joe Biden call for “sustained and coordinated” efforts to reopen schools for in-person instruction, with the cooperation of states and new resources, guidance, and data.
February 2021: In Chicago and other big cities, teachers’ unions influence school reopening plans
The Chicago teachers’ union reaches a reopening deal with the district that includes a delay that gives the district more time to vaccinate teachers, which was a sticking point in weeks of negotiations. Many big-city unions are in heated negotiations with their districts around this time period.
February 2021: CDC releases new guidelines as core part of Biden’s plan to reopen schools
“I want to be clear,” CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy says. “With the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. CDC is simply providing schools with a long-needed road map for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.”
March 2021: Vaccine access speeds up for teachers
March 2021: Schools get federal aid for homeless students
The American Rescue Plan, the third major package of federal COVID aid, includes $800 million for homeless children and youth (allocated through states), which is money that wasn’t set aside specifically for them in the two previous relief deals.
March 19, 2021: CDC eases recommendations for social distancing in classrooms
The CDC issues recommendations saying 3 feet of space between students who are wearing masks is a sufficient safeguard in most classroom situations. Many educators and policymakers viewed the agency’s previous recommendation of 6 feet of space as a major hurdle to a full return to in-person school.
Early April 2021: Vaccines become available for teens
States begin to open vaccine eligibility to those 16 and up, a watershed moment for the pandemic. By early April 2021, two-thirds of teachers tell the EdWeek Research Center they’d been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. By the end of the month, that figure had shot up to 80 percent.
April 20, 2021: USDA waives school meal regulations through June 2022
After extending waivers of school meal regulations several times, the USDA says the flexibilities will last until June 2022. The waivers will also allow schools to continue distributing meals to students who are learning remotely without red tape that can make it logistically difficult to do so.
May 10, 2021: Pfizer vaccine approved for 12- to 15- year-olds
The approval is a major development in the overall campaign to vaccinate more Americans and help ensure healthy and safe operations of middle and high schools in the pandemic. Schools begin opening their buildings to facilitate getting school-age children vaccinated.
May 13, 2021: American Federation of Teachers says schools must reopen five days a week in fall
“We can and we must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning, and support,” AFT President Randi Weingarten says in virtual speech. “And keep them open—fully and safely five days a week.”
Graduation 2021: Health worries and financial instability impact college-going decisions
EdWeek Research Center surveys comparing the class of 2020 and 2021 graduates find that 74 percent of 2020 graduates who were planning on attending a four-year college followed through with their plans and ended up attending a university. Only 62 percent of the class of 2021 were able to do the same. Among students who had planned to attend a two-year college in 2021, only 44 percent succeeded in doing so, compared with 57 percent of graduates who wished to enter a two-year degree program in 2020.
July 9, 2021: CDC says students, educators, and staff should still wear masks
The CDC advises that all students, visitors, and staff should wear masks in schools, regardless of their vaccination status and maintain “layered mitigation strategies,” like handwashing, regular testing, contact tracing to identify threats of exposure to the virus, and cancelling certain extracurricular activities in high-risk areas. The recommendations also put a priority on getting schools reopened for in-person learning.
July 2021: Biden administration calls on school districts to host pop-up vaccination clinics
The Biden administration pushes to increase the number of vaccinations for kids 12 and older as the Delta variant of the virus intensifies worries that the upcoming school year will be disrupted just like the last two were.
August 2021: First state requires all teachers and school staff get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing
California requires all teachers and school staff to either get vaccinated for COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing—the first state in the nation to issue such a sweeping requirement.
August 2021: Teachers face pressure to get vaccines, or face discipline
Oregon and Washington states require teachers to get fully vaccinated or face discipline, which could include termination. A handful of school districts, including Chicago and Los Angeles, impose similar mandates. California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Hawaii—as well as several more school districts, including Washington, D.C.—give teachers the choice between getting vaccinated or undergoing regular testing.
Sept. 24, 2021: CDC director approves booster shots for teachers, reversing panel’s decision
Hours after a federal vaccine advisory committee votes against recommending a booster shot for essential workers, including K-12 school staff, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overrules the decision.
Fall 2021: More schools adopt a ‘test-to-stay’ policy
Many schools adopt a “test-to-stay” program to let students who test negative for COVID-19 keep attending school even if they have been in close contact with someone who tests positive. The policy is intended to minimize disruption to in-person learning.
Oct. 1, 2021: California announces statewide COVID vaccine mandate for students
California’s first-in-the-nation requirement for students to get vaccinated against COVID also makes it easier for families to opt out than existing state rules that require vaccines for routine illnesses, like measles, as a condition of school attendance. The mandate will be phased in as vaccines win full approval from the Food and Drug Administration for different age groups.
Nov. 2, 2021: Children as young as 5 can get vaccines
The CDC approves the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine for emergency use authorization for children as young as five. The White House develops a distribution plan, highlighting ways schools can contribute to the effort by vaccinating children on campus in partnership with local health providers as well as combating vaccine misinformation that may prevent families from getting vaccines.
November 2021: Staffing shortages put a crimp on mandatory vaccine push
Districts start backing off consequences for vaccine mandates due to staffing shortages.
Dec. 27, 2021: CDC shortens its recommendations for quarantining
The CDC shortens its recommendations for the length of isolation and quarantine periods. Under the new guidance, people who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for five days, instead of the previously recommended 10, and then, if they have no symptoms or their symptoms are resolving, can resume normal activities wearing a mask for at least five more days.
January 2022: Omicron variant causes concerns after winter break
As COVID-19 cases rise due to the more-contagious Omicron variant, some districts push back their return to school after winter break, or pivot to remote instruction for one or two weeks.
Feb. 25, 2022: CDC relaxes mask guidelines for schools
The CDC releases guidance that universal masking in public settings, including schools, is only recommended in areas with high risk of serious illness or strained health-care resources.
March 15, 2022: Schools warn of hunger, higher costs when federal meal waivers end
Congress passes a spending bill that does not include flexibility for school meal programs, alarming child hunger and education groups. Federal waivers that let schools feed all students free meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will expire this summer, leaving school nutrition directors braced as supply chain issues and spiking costs eat up their already tight budgets.
March 31, 2022: Federal survey of high school students sheds light on mental health struggles
High school students experienced mental health challenges during the pandemic including hopelessness, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors, the CDC finds. But those who felt close to people at school or reported strong virtual connections with family and peers were less likely to report such concerns.