Most educators believe their school is prepared to handle a possible future wave of COVID-19 infections, but they are less likely to agree that their responses would include a return to the most restrictive pandemic precautions, like remote learning and universal mask requirements.
Those are the findings of a poll of 1,063 teachers, principals, and district administrators conducted by the EdWeek Research Center between March 30 and April 8.
The findings come as more schools relax COVID-19 mitigation strategies and comply with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says universal school masking is only required in communities with high hospitalization and case rates.
In interviews, school and district leaders told Education Week they are generally hopeful about a gradual return to normal school operations. But after two years of twists and turns, they are still unsure of what to expect in the coming months as the CDC monitors a slight uptick in cases caused by the contagious BA.2 variant and warns about the potential for future virus mutations.
“The news is a constant reminder that we are not out of this,” said Janine Dillabaugh, an elementary school principal in Denver.
This week, she could feel that sense of uncertainty as she stood in her school’s office with fellow educators, discussing the return of mask requirements in Philadelphia and isolation protocols in China.
Like other respondents to EdWeek’s survey, Dillabaugh is confident her school’s employees could respond to another virus surge, but she’s hopeful they won’t have to.
“Logistically, we are prepared,” she said. “We have check-in meetings with our district, they continue to keep a pulse on cases, we have the systems and structures set up from the highest moments of cases—during Delta— that worked and got us through that.”
“On the flip side, are we prepared socially and emotionally? No. I would say it would be a huge jolt to the system again.”
Among respondents to the EdWeek Research Center survey, 89 percent said their school or district would be “somewhat prepared” or “very prepared” for “any new COVID variant or surge of the magnitude that hit the nation and schools in 2020 to 2021.” Seven percent said their school or district would be “somewhat unprepared” and 4 percent said they would be “very unprepared.”
Even as they eased recommendations and introduced new, less stringent metrics to measure community risk, federal health officials have also stressed that schools have the tools they need to operate safely in person amid any future upticks in cases.
“We need to be able to relax our layered prevention measures when we have fewer cases and hospitalizations, but then we need to be able to dial them up again should there be a new variant or a new surge,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in February as she announced new mask recommendations.
Educators divided on the return of masks, precautions
But educators who responded to EdWeek’s survey were divided about which COVID-19 protocols their schools would adopt.
For example, 50 percent of respondents said their school or district previously required masks and would likely reimpose those rules if there is another surge. Thirty-nine percent said their school previously had a mask requirement but would not likely reimpose one if there is another surge.
There was more agreement about in-person learning: Fifty-eight percent of respondents said their school previously had a full or partial shutdown, but it would not likely be reimposed if there is another surge.
Asked about quarantine protocols for students exposed to COVID-19, 34 percent said their school or district had such requirements in place currently, and 35 percent said previous quarantine protocols would likely be reinstated in case of a surge. Thirty percent of respondents said their school or district had quarantine requirements previously but would not likely reinstate them, and 2 percent said they have never had such rules.
Schools’ COVID-19 responses have been divisive in many communities, and it would be even more challenging to put restrictions in place after they have been lifted, said Brian Stacy, superintendent of the 300-student Melrose, N.M., district.
“I got it on both ends,” he said. “‘Are you going to make our kids wear masks?’ ‘Are you not going to make our kids wear masks?’ I had to straddle that fence.”
The Melrose community, which Stacy described as “very conservative,” was generally less cautious than the state’s leadership, he said. The district required masks when the state called for them, but dropped the requirement as soon as it could.
Stacy said it would be “political suicide” for state leaders to reimpose face-covering requirements in schools.
But other educational administrators said they believed their students and their families would be more receptive to the return of heightened precautions if they are deemed necessary.
“I’m a hopeful person,” said Lou Maynus, who is superintendent of both the Ohio State School for the Blind and the Ohio School for the Deaf. “Sometimes I think I have a Pollyanna attitude, but we have to be prepared. Living through what we’ve lived through the last couple of years, we are prepared.”
Throughout the pandemic, the school has regularly disinfected surfaces so that blind students could safely navigate buildings and learn through touch. And teachers and students wore masks with clear windows so that deaf students could more easily see mouth movements and facial expressions.
Because some students have co-occurring conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe illness, Maynus believes her community would be cooperative with any stepped-up precautions.
Dillabaugh, the Denver principal, said she expected the same cooperation from her community.
“ I’m optimistic that we are heading in the right direction and heading toward normalcy,” she said. “I’m also realistic that if cases surge again and we have to look at [adopting precautions] again, that we would be able to do it.”