Back to School: Lessons Learned About Safe School Reopening
This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United States in spring 2020, schools faced an onslaught of challenges rooted in the uncertainty of how to ensure student safety and ongoing learning. Now, as schools around the country begin to reopen for fall 2021, low vaccination rates in some areas and the emergence of more transmissible variants have created new challenges.
It is on these shifting sands that districts have had to decide how to reopen safely. As schools look ahead to the 2021–22 school year, there are reasons to feel hopeful for a safe return to in-person learning: We now know far more about the virus, including that it is airborne and that multilayered mitigation strategies are effective at preventing in-school transmission. Vaccines that significantly decrease the risk of illness from infection are available for those ages 12 and up. And historic levels of federal funding are flowing to states and districts to support COVID-19 recovery and help schools reopen safely.
But there are also reasons to remain cautious and sustain mitigation efforts as districts reopen this fall. COVID-19 has shown itself capable of rapidly evolving new variants with greater transmissibility. Scientists point to sluggish vaccination rates, which vary widely across the country, as an ongoing barrier to suppressing transmission and preventing the emergence of new variants. Children under age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccinations, and vaccination rates among 12- to 15-year-olds remain the lowest of any age group, at around 31%. Nationally, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, driven primarily by the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant through unvaccinated populations. And in some cases, even vaccinated people have experienced breakthrough infections with the Delta variant, although studies show that vaccines remain highly effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization.
Schools will continue to face evolving conditions during the 2021–22 school year, as they did when the pandemic began. But this time, districts have battle-tested tools and strategies for sustaining safe in-person learning, developed over the course of more than a year of pandemic schooling. The following key lessons are drawn from COVID-19 research, district websites, media coverage, and interviews with educators:
- Robust multilayered mitigation strategies—including masking, vaccination, testing, and contact tracing—can support safe in-person learning.
- Engaging families and school staff through strong communication and transparent decision-making can cultivate buy-in for mitigation strategies.
- Safety during reopening requires approaches that protect students’ and educators’ physical, mental, and social-emotional well-being.
Implement multilayered mitigation strategies to support a safe return to in-person learning
Research shows that multilayered mitigation strategies, including universal masking, vaccination, testing, and contact tracing, coupled with ventilation, cohorting, and hygiene practices, are effective at preventing in-school transmission and ensuring students and staff can safely return to in-person learning. These strategies work by creating multiple barriers that prevent COVID-19 from spreading from the community into schools. They also minimize learning disruptions by preventing the need for quarantines of large numbers of students and staff, as occurred recently in a school district in Arkansas, which—along with several other states—has banned districts from implementing mask mandates. Just days after the district reopened, 43 positive cases were identified, and more than 800 students and school staff members had to quarantine. In a hearing with state lawmakers, the district superintendent said, “My concern is I can’t teach our kids if they are quarantined.… I think it’s important to understand that if our students had been under the same mask mandate that we administered last year, instead of having 730 people quarantined we would have had 42.”
In California, Brentwood Union School District also identified positive cases within days of reopening, but unlike the district in Arkansas, as of August 2, Brentwood only had to quarantine 55 students and 2 staff members. Brentwood reopened safely with multiple mitigation strategies in place, including universal masking, COVID-19 testing, and contact tracing, which allowed the district to avoid mass quarantines and confirm that none of the infections were acquired in school.
Districts across the country implemented and refined their mitigation strategies during the 2020–21 school year and plan to continue doing so when classes resume in the fall. For example, during the 2020–21 academic year, Tulsa Public Schools worked closely with Tulsa public health officials to implement a districtwide COVID-19 testing program as part of a demonstration project conducted in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, and Johns Hopkins University. The program began offering testing to teachers and staff during a pilot phase in November 2020. By February 2021, when schools reopened for in-person instruction, the district started offering screening tests for asymptomatic people at 70 schools in the district.
Testing continued in Tulsa during summer learning. Even as community cases began rising in July due to the Delta variant, district-level cases remained very low during summer school, with only 0.10% (11 out of approximately 11,000) of students testing positive during the last week of July. Tulsa plans to continue its testing program when the 2021–22 school year begins, as well as other critical mitigation strategies, including universal masking.
Cultivate buy-in for mitigation strategies by engaging families and staff through strong communication and transparent decision-making
To help maintain a sense of trust and safety among school staff and families, districts like Tulsa Public Schools have established methodical reopening approaches focused on strong communication and transparency. For example, district leaders obtained feedback from and disseminated information through standing teacher and student cabinets, the local teachers union, the principals association, and support professionals’ departments; through social media and direct messaging apps to students and families; and through a parent, student, and community member survey that received over 15,000 responses. The district has also published comprehensive weekly updates that are presented to the school board and include case and quarantine rates in surrounding districts to help provide context for Tulsa administrators’ reopening decisions.
In California, the Marin County Office of Education (MCOE) and Marin County public health department—which have maintained a strong partnership since the beginning of the pandemic—worked collaboratively to increase vaccination rates. One MCOE administrator described vaccinations as “a hard sell in the beginning,” which led to intensive, individualized outreach and communication efforts, and a strategic decision to operate vaccination clinics in schools with the highest percentages of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, where vaccine hesitancy could be addressed with care and compassion.
To ensure all staff were vaccinated, MCOE leaders called employees who did not show up at free weekend clinics or who did not have proof of vaccination. Outreach efforts avoided shaming and instead engaged in nonjudgmental, one-on-one conversations. At the same time, public health officers found trusted voices to help promote vaccines in the community. By July 2021, 100% of MCOE’s central office employees had been vaccinated. The Latino/a community in Marin City, which initially lagged far behind the white population, is now 86% fully vaccinated, with another 12% having received a first dose.
And in California’s Antelope Valley, the California Association of African-American Superintendents and Administrators (CAAASA) has launched outreach and vaccination efforts to address vaccine hesitancy in communities of color. Working in partnership with five school districts and numerous community-based organizations, CAAASA has vaccinated more than 300 people and connected families to critical resources such as food pantries, rental assistance, and health and mental health services.
CAAASA has also elevated trusted community voices to help disseminate crucial information about vaccinations and support services. For example, when families arrive to pick up food at school sites or a community food pantry, a team of Family Ambassadors helps identify families’ additional needs and connects them to resources. During several events hosted in 2021, CAAASA provided educators and community members with opportunities to hear from Black medical professionals, who explained the impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color, dispelled myths about the vaccine, and answered questions from participants (see here for CAAASA’s January 2021 webinar). With support from the Centers for Disease Control Foundation, CAAASA recently launched “Let’s VAX, THEN Relax,” an initiative to continue disseminating information about vaccines and other critical topics, such as college financial aid, through five town hall meetings. The first webinar, held at a local church, allowed attendees to ask questions of trusted medical experts and hear stories from other residents who have been vaccinated against or impacted by COVID-19.
Create safe learning environments by prioritizing students’ and educators’ physical, mental, and social-emotional well-being
In addition to prioritizing the physical safety of students and staff by implementing multilayered mitigation strategies, schools must also consider the mental health and social-emotional implications of the pandemic, including rising rates of depression and anxiety among young people. Recognizing the broader needs of the whole child, districts like Tulsa Public Schools innovated multiple strategies during the pandemic to address the mental health and social-emotional needs of students. This has included ensuring that each school has a Wellness Team, which, depending on school site, includes some combination of an attendance clerk, social worker, nurse, teacher, principal, parent leader, and/or community partner. These teams make direct phone calls and administer surveys to identify specific areas of need and mobilize resources, including referrals to mental health resources, housing and food assistance, grief support groups, and other social services. To support staff members, the district has also disseminated weekly newsletters on wellness and self-care that include information on who to contact for additional supports, established a care line for teachers and principals, and partnered with the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma to create drive-through options for food pickup.
Similarly, San Diego County’s Cajon Valley Unified School District has prioritized students’ physical and social-emotional safety from the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to implementing strategies like advisories to support relationship building and students’ sense of belonging during the school year, the district created Camp Cajon—a free, in-person summer learning program. Building off of lessons learned from an in-person program administered the prior summer, the district implemented Camp Cajon in 2021 to provide students with opportunities to learn in small groups, receive personalized instruction, and engage in hands-on learning, all while ensuring COVID-19 mitigation strategies were in place. During summer learning in both 2020 and 2021, the district provided these opportunities without experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.
Back to school: Carrying forward lessons learned
Though the virus has evolved, so too has our understanding about what works for supporting a safe return to school: multilayered mitigation strategies; actively engaging families and staff to cultivate trust and buy-in; and prioritizing not only the physical safety of students and staff, but their social-emotional safety as well. Though conditions may again shift, as they have many times over the past year and a half, districts now have some stable ground to walk on. While reflecting on his district’s challenges and successes from the prior year and their meaning for the months ahead, one Cajon Valley administrator summed it up by saying: “We know how to do this. We’ve been doing this for more than a year.” Using what we know will help us ensure that students can safely return to—and remain in—in-person learning and begin to recover from the disruptions and challenges that so many have faced during the pandemic.
Resources for Reopening Schools
This collection of resources brings together recent and rigorous science to inform school reopening efforts with evidence-based approaches to provide and sustain safe, in-person instruction for students. Visit the website >