Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


Many States Have Left Schools Hanging About How to Reopen Safely, Analysis Finds

By Evie Blad — August 17, 2021 5 min read
Man trapped in maze.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As schools scramble to reopen amid the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant and changing conditions, many states have ceded their role in ensuring students are safe and able to learn in-person.

That’s the conclusion drawn by authors from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, who reviewed every state’s guidance to school districts between July 29 and Aug. 6, creating a database of policies it plans to update regularly.

They found a patchwork of varying, and sometimes incomplete, directives on issues like universal mask requirements, plans for remote learning, and tracking teacher vaccinations. That has left many schools with big questions about how to start the school year and even bigger concerns about maintaining public trust, especially as rates of the virus climb in their communities.

“They have not positioned districts to prepare for all that might confront local school systems over the next year,” said Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at CRPE, a research center based at the University of Washington, Bothell. “Ultimately families and students bear the costs of that inadequate preparation.”

Even after two years of unprecedented interruptions caused by the pandemic and months of frustration over when and how to reopen, many districts find themselves starting another school year with uncertainty, she said. That’s in part because of the unpredictable nature of the health crisis, which quickly shifted in July and created an even newer new normal for educators and families.

Benchmarks to guide reopening decisions

Even as some regions with low vaccination rates see climbing case counts and hospitalizations, few states have provided guidance about when and if schools should suspend in-person learning.

Just five states—Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, and Rhode Island—provided specific health indicators or benchmarks to guide reopening decisions, the analysis found.

In the 2020-21 school year, many states relied on tools like color-coded rubrics informed by data points like what percentage of virus tests yielded positive results to tell schools when it was safe to operate and what precautions they should take.

But scientists’ understanding of how to keep students safe evolved over the last school year, and policymakers in both parties have pushed for schools to offer in-person learning to all students. When it released new guidance for schools over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also emphasized in-person learning with appropriate precautions. Unlike previous versions, that guidance did not specify conditions under which schools should close.

But the Delta variant has spread more rapidly than previous strains of the virus, leading to heightened concerns about cases in unvaccinated children and community spread.

And, even without official policies about returning to full-time remote learning, schools in some areas have experienced de facto closures as hundreds or even thousands of students have been forced to quarantine a week or two into the school year.

Guidance on providing remote learning

That disruption could create challenges for ensuring students stay on track with classroom instruction, Jochim said.

That’s in part because—as they anticipated improving pandemic conditions—many states provided even less guidance on creating remote learning plans than they did last year, the analysis found. Eight states—Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia— have restricted what types of virtual learning districts can offer, some only allowing remote instruction if a state of emergency is in effect. And seven states provided no recommendations at all for how schools should structure remote learning options.

“We’ve seen states pull back pretty dramatically,” Jochim said.

Directives on requiring masks in schools

Perhaps the most attention-getting state moves have related to requiring masks in schools—or prohibiting such requirements on a local level.

CRPE counts nine states that have banned such mandates and 10 states that have mandated them in all schools. Twenty-nine states have recommended masks in schools, down from 44 states last fall, the analysis found.

Superintendents have said state requirements can help take some of the political pressure off of their shoulders when they announce virus precautions in a politically polarized environment. But, in states like Florida and Texas, some have fought in court to overturn state-level policies that tie their hands on issues like masking and contact tracing.

Tracking teacher vaccinations

Epidemiologists have said the best way to reduce rates of virus transmission in a community, including among unvaccinated children, is to boost the rates of adult vaccinations.

But most families have no way of knowing if their child’s teacher is vaccinated, or of monitoring vaccination rates among educators overall. Just five states— Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Utah, and West Virginia— plan to track teacher vaccination rates, often through voluntary surveys.

Teachers unions and federal officials have more vocally supported educator vaccine mandates in recent weeks, but California is the only state to have set a statewide requirement. And, even as more districts have said teachers must be vaccinated or tested regularly, 13 states have banned requirements for teachers or students to receive the inoculations, the analysis found.

Continued leadership needed amid uncertainty

Even as the school year has started in many places, states still have a role to play, CRPE researchers said.

They can help provide guidance and oversight for schools and a bully pulpit to reassure and reengage families who may have lost trust in their schools over the past year and half. And they can start thinking now about how to help schools prepare for a post-pandemic world, when concerns about effects on student learning and mental health will surely persist, Jochim said.

“I think states have a really important role to play in looking around the corner and setting local school systems up for success in whatever comes next,” she said. “There’s going to be uncertainty for a while.”


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

States Is Cursive Making a Comeback in California? Bill Could Revitalize Traditional Writing Skills
California elementary and middle school students could soon see a renewed commitment to teaching cursive writing.
Maya Miller, The Sacramento Bee
2 min read
Close crop of an elementary school, black girl in class focused on writing in a book.
States Florida's Edicts on Schools Keep Changing, and Local Districts Are Confused
District leaders say frustration is mounting as they try to enforce new education laws regarding gender issues, sex, library books, and race.
Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times
7 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Miami.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Miami.
Marta Lavandier/AP
States What's With All the Education News Out of Florida? A Recap of Education Policy Decisions
Since 2022, the Florida department of education has generated a flurry of headlines around controversial policy decisions.
6 min read
Concept image of hand grabbing book from library shelf with an outline of the state of Florida overtop of image.
Conceptual: Liz Yap/Education Week; iStock/Getty/DigitalVision Vectors
States Massachusetts Joins Short List of States Providing Free School Meals to All
States are stepping in where federal COVID-relief aid dropped off.
4 min read
Students at the Maurice J. Tobin K-8 School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood eat lunch on Sept. 4, 2013.
Students at the Maurice J. Tobin K-8 School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood eat lunch on Sept. 4, 2013.
Steven Senne/AP