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

By Evie Blad — August 17, 2021 5 min read
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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.”

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