In addition to fulfilling the crucial task of educating children, schools serve multiple functions in communities. Many families rely on schools for child care, not only during regular school hours but also through extended care in mornings and after school. Schools also provide meals, health care, counseling, and access to social services. In many communities, moreover, schools serve as a center of social life, a place where everyone gathers for events and where relationships among members of the community are built. Finally, schools are workplaces.
With the closure of schools as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to many of these functions was lost. Because of these ripple effects of school closures, communities are wrestling with the difficult question of how best to balance the public health risks involved in opening and operating schools against the consequences for students, families, and communities of keeping them closed. In this chapter we outline the risks of keeping buildings closed and describe aspects of education that are especially relevant to the question of opening and operating school buildings.
The manifold purposes of schools have never been as evident as they are at this moment, when families are attempting to serve all of those functions at once, at home. Aside from their stated purpose as a place where students are exposed to and learn the academic disciplines, schools fill critical civic and practical roles. Since the “common school” movement of the 1830s, public school advocates have stressed the role of schooling
in promoting social cohesion among disparate groups through a universal scholastic experience. In this sense, schools are the quintessential public good: the argument that strong common schooling begets a strong, committed citizenry has long been used to justify why taxpayers should invest in education (Kober and Rentner, 2020).
Schools are also tasked with teaching disciplinary content (such as reading, mathematics, science, etc.), and providing a space where students can develop critically important socioemotional skills. While schools are certainly not the only place students can develop these skills, they are a major venue for children to interact with one another and with adults outside of their families. These interactions in schools provide important opportunities for children and youth to develop self-regulation, essential life skills, and interests and identities.
Schools are also workplaces. In addition to the more than 3.8 million full-time public elementary and secondary teachers employed in schools (McFarland et al., 2019), schools employ leaders and administrators, support staff, maintenance persons, cafeteria workers, nurses and mental health professionals, and others. As a workplace, schools are subject to the same labor laws and health and safety regulations that govern other businesses, and many school employees are represented by labor unions negotiating on their behalf.
On a personal level, families entrust their children to schools with the belief that experienced personnel and staff will act in loco parentis by caring for them and keeping them safe from harm. School leaders, educators, and staff play a vital role in ensuring that effective policies, procedures, and strategies are in place to ensure that the physical safety, health and well-being, and nutritional needs of students are met while in their care. Indeed, many schools now serve as a key point of coordination for basic needs supports and community services for some of the nation’s most vulnerable students and families. This “child care” function of schools is what enables many parents to participate in the U.S. workforce.
Any discussion of public schools in the United States needs to begin with an acknowledgment of the profound inequities that have characterized the system since it was established. Research shows that schools in which a majority of students come from economically disadvantaged communities often lack the human, material, and curricular resources to meet their students’ academic and socioemotional needs (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2019a). Relative to their counterparts from wealthier families, students in these under-resourced schools have more limited access to learning opportunities and resources that can promote their
success (Owens, Reardon, and Jencks, 2016). This observation is supported by research showing that poverty rates among the families of students who attend a school are associated with key measures of school quality that affect learning and achievement (Bohrnstedt et al., 2015; Clotfelter et al., 2007; Hanushek and Rivkin, 2006). Research also shows that Black and LatinX students are disproportionately more likely to be enrolled in schools with large proportions of low-income students (NASEM, 2019a).
These persistent underlying conditions are a crucial consideration when weighing the costs and benefits of reopening and operating schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Poorly resourced schools are likely to have fewer resources to devote to developing alternatives to in-person instruction when schools are closed. Low-income students and families are less likely to have access to reliable Internet thus limiting their access to online instruction. Higher-income families may have more resources to devote to enrichment activities than low-income families, and may be more likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home and potentially support children during distance learning. Finally, as we elaborate later in this chapter, the age and condition of school facilities can vary widely even within the same district, creating challenges for implementation of the public health measures necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19. Further, schools and school districts vary widely in the funds and staff they can devote to implementing such measures.
In sum, any decision about school reopening and operation has to be informed by existing disparities in resources and infrastructure. Without careful attention to equity and inequity, plans for moving ahead in the 2020–2021 school year run a very real risk of exacerbating the existing inequities in ways that could have serious long-term, detrimental consequences for students, families, and communities.
When school buildings closed in Spring 2020, the majority of districts developed strategies for providing distance learning for students. It is likely that if school buildings remain closed for the 2020–2021 school year, distance learning options will be made available. This means that, ultimately, the decision to reopen school buildings entails weighing the potential negative impact of long-term distance learning on children and youth against the health risks of reopening to the community.
Educational Risks to Students
In this section, we discuss the educational risks to children and youth as well as the risks to families and communities if school buildings remain
closed. As noted above, schools play an important role in the lives of children and youth not just academically, but also socially, emotionally, and even physically. Impacts in all of these domains need to be considered.
We begin with a brief description of the closures in Spring 2020. We examined the Spring 2020 closures for two reasons. First, they highlight the problem of uneven access when distance learning is the primary mode of instruction. Second, the trends in access suggest that some groups of students may be at greater risk of falling behind academically when distance learning is used for an extended period of time.
Schools’ Responses in Spring 2020
In Spring 2020, schools were forced to close quickly with little advance warning and little time to develop robust plans for continuity of instruction or for providing the full range of services outlined above. Nevertheless, district leaders, teachers, and other staff, often alongside parents, went to heroic efforts to continue as many services as possible. A survey of 250 school districts (10,289 schools) nationwide showed that by early May 2020, 97 percent of the districts were providing some kind of distance learning, including both web-based platforms and packets of worksheets (American Enterprise Institute, 2020). Districts varied, however, in the extent to which they provided synchronous instruction (where teachers and students interact virtually in real time) and documented students’ participation in learning. Among a representative sample of 477 school systems across the country surveyed following the widespread closures (Gross and Opalka, 2020), only one in three said they expected teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement, or monitor academic progress for all students. Only half of districts expected teachers to track their students’ engagement in learning through either attendance tracking or one-on-one check-ins.
The same survey found significant gaps between rural districts and urban and suburban school districts. Only 27 percent of rural and small-town districts expected teachers to provide instruction, compared with more than half of urban districts. Similarly, 43 percent of rural districts expected teachers to take attendance or check in with their students on a regular basis, compared with 65 percent of urban districts. Fewer rural than urban districts required progress monitoring and provided formal grades of some kind. These gaps between rural and urban and suburban districts were larger than the gaps between affluent and economically disadvantaged communities. Still, school districts in affluent communities were twice as likely as those in more economically disadvantaged communities to expect teachers to deliver real-time lessons to groups of students. The variation across districts revealed in these findings raises concern about the disparities
in access to instruction that could be created if distance learning were to continue over the long term in the 2020–2021 school year.
Lack of access to the Internet and to devices that facilitate effective virtual learning, as well as limited broadband, also could lead to disparities in access to instruction. According to the American Community Survey, as of 2018, 94 percent of 3- to 18-year-olds had home Internet access: 88 percent had home access through a computer, 6 percent only through a smartphone, and 6 percent not at all. As with other disparities, access varies by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity. About 26 percent of low-income 3- to 18-year-olds do not have Internet access or have it only through a smartphone, compared with 12 percent of middle low-income families, 5 percent of middle high-income families, and 2 percent of high-income families. Similarly, 30 percent of American Indian or Alaskan Native families do not have access or have it only through a smartphone, as is the case for 24 percent of families of Pacific Islander descent, 21 percent of Black families, 19 percent of LatinX families, 7 percent of white families, and 4 percent of Asian families. Finally, in urban areas, just 2 percent of people lack adequate broadband coverage, compared with 26 percent of those in rural areas and 32 percent of those living on tribal lands (Rachfal and Gilroy, 2019).
Taken together, these trends suggest that low-income students, students of color, and students in rural areas have less access to the technology needed to support virtual learning. Many districts, recognizing these disparities, went to tremendous efforts to improve access by providing devices and hot spots. This may mean that access is less of an issue for the Fall 2020-2021 school year, but the extent to which districts are able to surmount the access issues is likely tied to the amount of resources they have as well as how many students do not have access.
Learning and Instruction in the 2020–2021 School Year
The reality of the current public health situation is that even if school buildings reopen to some extent districts are likely to use a blend of in-person and distance learning. In some locations, the majority of students and teachers may be in the building. However, even where community transmission is minimal and where the school buildings can accommodate all students in new configurations that allow for physical distancing, medically vulnerable students and staff will likely need to have a distance option. This raises the question of how districts should make decisions about how to prioritize which students will be most at risk from extended distance learning and how to ensure that access to distance learning options is equitable.
Children and youth of all ages benefit from in-person learning both academically and socioemotionally. The potential for real-time feedback
and discussion, opportunities to interact with peers, and warm, supportive relationships with adults in schools are all key features of in-person learning that are difficult to replicate in distance learning.
The consequences of long-term distance learning are likely to differ depending on the age of students and their specific learning needs. Elementary-aged children may struggle with distance learning, especially if an adult is not available to support them. This is the case especially for children in grades K–3, who are still developing the skills needed to regulate their own behavior and emotions, maintain attention, and monitor their own learning (NASEM, 2019b). As children move into later childhood and adolescence, they become better able to regulate their own emotions and behavior (NASEM, 2019c). In addition, the long-term consequences of being unable to make adequate progress through distance learning may be more severe for students in grades K–3 than for older students. Research has demonstrated long-term, negative consequences for children who are not reading at grade level by third grade, particularly those in low-income families (National Research Council, 1998).
Children and youth with special needs or with individualized education programs may also be at greater risk from long-term distance learning. Even with adequate resources at home, they often cannot derive the same level of service (e.g., career and technical education, physical therapy, medical care) that in-person contact provides.
Finally, as noted in Chapter 2, parents and caregivers who are low-income and are Black, and LatinX are more likely to be employed in jobs where they cannot telecommute. This means that even when students have access to appropriate technology, there may not be an adult in the home during the day who can provide the additional support that some students may need to benefit from distance learning. These trends may mean that long-term use of distance learning can result in even larger disparities in learning outcomes by income and race/ethnicity than already exist.
Recognizing all of these factors, the American Academy of Pediatrics (2020) recently released a statement that “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
Equity and Distance Learning
As noted above, troubling differences exist in access to the Internet and devices that allow students to engage fully in virtual learning. Therefore, a major challenge of developing models for operating schools that include some form of distance learning will be ensuring that all students have equitable access to instruction. Recognizing this challenge, The Education Trust and Digital Promise (2020) collaborated on a guide for digital learning that
poses important questions related to equity, identifies key challenges, and offers examples of possible strategies. The key questions are as follows:
- “How are you ensuring that all students have access to the devices they need to fully participate in distance learning?
- How are you ensuring that all students have access to reliable, high-speed Internet to continue their education?
- How are you supporting schools in structuring instructional time to meet the needs of students with varying levels of access to the Internet and technology?
- How are you supporting students with disabilities who need specialized instruction, related services, and other supports during school closures?
- How are you ensuring the instructional needs of English Learners are supported during school closures?
- What kind of support and professional development are you providing to school leaders and teachers, especially in schools serving students of color and students from low-income backgrounds and educators of students with disabilities and English learners?
- How are you supporting the social and emotional well-being of students, their parents/caregivers, and teachers during school closures?
- How are you maintaining regular communication with students and families—particularly the most vulnerable—during school closures?
- How are you measuring student progress to ensure students and families have an accurate picture of student performance for this school year?
- How are you supporting all high school students, especially seniors, in staying on track to graduate and preparing for college and career?”
Risks to Families and Communities
With the closure of school buildings, districts either stopped providing the various supports and services noted at the beginning of this chapter or had to quickly develop innovative ways of continuing them. Reopening school buildings will allow schools to provide these supports and services more easily and in a more complete way.
Economically disadvantaged children and their families rely on school meals to meet basic nutritional needs. During school closures, school districts were immediately compelled by state and local governments and local education agencies to provide breakfast and lunch to any student, regardless of family income. A survey of 250 public school districts (10,289
schools) showed that although all the schools were closed by late March 2020, 95 percent were providing meals to students as of May 8, 2020 (American Enterprise Institute, 2020). As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact economic conditions nationwide, many more families are likely to need access to meals through schools.
In some communities, schools have increasingly become a key point of coordination for health and mental health services for vulnerable students and families. For health services, some schools offer extensive support including health centers located in the school while others offer little support. About 81 percent of public schools employ a full- or part-time school nurse (Willgerodt, Brock, and Maughan, 2018). School nurses conduct screenings, administer medications, address acute injuries and illnesses, and help students get needed care. They also help prevent disease outbreaks by tracking student immunization requirements and monitoring health trends (Willgerodt et al., 2018).
Students and families receive mental health support from a range of professionals in the school setting including school counselors and psychologists. Before being forced by the pandemic to close, many schools were already recognizing the need to provide more extensive mental health supports for students; for some students, schools are the primary source of these supports. Even prior to the pandemic, many children and youth—especially those of low socioeconomic status—experienced traumatic events (Phelps and Sperry, 2020). These adverse events often have long-term negative impacts (Phelps and Sperry, 2020). The pandemic is likely to increase the number of students who need this kind of support, particularly those whose families have experienced economic hardship or death.
If and when schools physically reopen, the socioemotional and mental health needs of students and families will need to be a high priority. While much attention has been paid in the media to potential learning losses and the negative consequences for academic achievement, the collective trauma of the pandemic should not be underestimated. Particularly in the communities hardest hit by COVID-19, children may have experienced the extreme illness or death of multiple close family members even as their families and communities are facing the stress of serious economic setbacks. While it was beyond the scope of the committee’s charge to specify how schools should help students and families cope with this trauma, we stress the importance of making this kind of supportive response a priority. These efforts will need to include school counselors and other specialized staff as well as teachers.
Finally, while the time that children and youth spend in school is about much more than child care, public schools do serve as the primary child care option for many working caregivers. The extensive building closures meant that families were left without child care. For caregivers who were
able to work from home, this meant juggling work responsibilities while also caring for children and supporting their ongoing learning. However, as noted above, many caregivers, particularly those who are low income, Black, or LatinX, do not have access to jobs that allow them to work from home. Without reliable child care they must make difficult decisions about leaving children home alone, or leaving their jobs.
While the risks of building closures to students and families discussed above are important to consider, the needs and concerns of the school workforce are equally important. In addition, the condition of school facilities poses practical constraints on how well strategies for maintaining the health of staff and students can be implemented.
The School Workforce
Reopening school buildings safely also means finding a way to ensure the safety of the professionals who work in schools. School districts are often one of the largest employers in local communities. In 2017, elementary, middle, and secondary schools nationwide employed more than 5.5 million people (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018). Of these, 3.1 million (65%) were teachers and instructors. Other than teachers, the two largest occupations in schools were janitors and cleaners (300,000) and education administrators (250,000).
Many school personnel are understandably concerned about the health risks involved in returning to full-time, in-person instruction. Twenty-eight percent of public school teachers are over 50, putting them in the higher-risk age category for serious consequences of COVID-19 (Taie and Goldring, 2020). On a survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders administered by the EdWeek Research Center in June 2020, 62 percent reported that they were somewhat or very concerned about returning. Any plans for reopening will need to address these concerns.
The effects of the pandemic on the long-term teacher workforce are still unknown, with some evidence indicating that previous recessions have induced strong candidates to enter the relatively stable teaching profession (Nagler, Piopiunik, and West, 2017). At the same time, many schools, particularly those that serve the least advantaged students, struggled even before the pandemic to fill positions in such areas as upper-level mathematics, science, and special education (Learning Policy Institute, 2018), and there are concerns that reopening schools could exacerbate existing staffing shortages. Just under one-fifth of teachers and almost one-third of
principals are aged 55 or older, the age group that accounts for the majority of COVID-19 deaths (Taie and Goldring, 2020; Will, 2020). These are also the teachers who have the option of early retirement, and a wave of concurrent retirements could severely limit schools’ options for serving students.
School Facilities and School Organization
The scale of the reopening of U.S. public K–12 school buildings is staggering: prior to the pandemic, nearly 50 million students and 6 million adults attended school in 100,000 buildings, encompassing an estimated 7.5 billion gross square feet and 2 million acres of land (Filardo, 2016). School facility infrastructure was designed to support dense communities of children, managed by adults. Facilities were designed to group students in maximum class sizes; utilize large spaces for eating, outdoor play, and assemblies; and require the sharing of laboratories, art, music, and physical education spaces to reduce costs. The 2017 National Household Travel Survey found that of the 50 million children (aged 5–17) who traveled to school each day in the United States, 54.2 percent were usually driven in a private vehicle, 33.2 percent took a school bus, 10.4 percent walked or biked, and 2.2 percent used other forms of transit (Federal Highway Administration, 2019). At least 35 percent of U.S. schoolchildren travel to school in close proximity to others. School reopening and operating/mitigation strategies will have to be implemented within this organizational structure.
Prior to the pandemic, many students across the country attended school in aging facilities with significant deferred maintenance problems; inadequate cleaning; and obsolete facilities systems, components, and technology. Crowding also characterized many schools and classrooms. Research shows that high-quality facilities help improve student achievement, reduce truancy and suspensions, improve staff satisfaction and retention, and raise property values (Filardo, Vincent, and Sullivan, 2019). They also are integral to ensuring educational equity and opportunities for students and communities (Office of Civil Rights, 2014).
School districts are being advised to employ mitigation measures that are challenging. In order to reopen and operate in the COVID environment, school districts are being advised to monitor and improve their indoor air quality, increase the levels of cleaning, ensure frequent handwashing for students and staff, and employ space utilization to physically distance students and staff. Each of these mitigation measures poses unique operational challenges. They are especially difficult to implement in aged facilities with deferred maintenance and inadequate custodial support.
According to a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on school facilities, about half (an estimated 54%) of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or
features in their schools (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2020). An estimated 41 percent of districts need to update or replace heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in at least half of their schools, representing about 36,000 schools nationwide. Ventilation and air filtration are among the mitigation measures schools are asked to consider. These measures include taking steps to increase the amount of fresh air in classrooms and other occupied areas, installing HEPA filters in mechanical systems, and moving instruction outdoors. Schools with modern HVAC systems are able to implement the HVAC mitigation recommendations; as the GAO study shows, however, this is not the case for nearly half of the nation’s public schools.
Many school districts, particularly those serving low-income students, already suffer from having inadequate custodial staff. Cleaning to higher standards will require hiring and training additional custodial staff and procuring additional cleaning supplies and equipment. Older school facilities will not have enough bathrooms or sinks for frequent handwashing. The faucets and fixtures of lavatories that are in poor condition will not be in full working order, making frequent handwashing protocols difficult to implement.
Staffing schools to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) physical distancing guideline of a minimum 6-foot separation between students is also a major challenge for districts. Class sizes currently vary tremendously. Children with high levels of needs, including those who are medically fragile, are in very small groups of as few as 6 students, while typical class sizes are anywhere from 18 to 35 students, depending on age, subject, and the resources of the school district. Physical distancing with class size limited to as few as 10–18 students per class, depending on classroom square footage, will require more instructional staff. School districts are exploring major schedule changes to meet the CDC’s physical distancing guideline, with students spending far less time in onsite instruction. Meeting that guideline is even more challenging for poorly resourced districts. Insufficient in-school technology infrastructure, for example, means that synchronous instruction that could serve students both onsite and offsite will be difficult if not impossible.
Many studies have found that poor-quality school facilities harm occupant health, attendance, achievement, and school quality,1 and children
1 There is strong evidence in the academic literature that the quality of school facilities affects student achievement through myriad factors, and is a factor in student and teacher attendance, teacher retention and recruitment, child and teacher health, and the quality of curriculum (Alexander and Lewis, 2014). Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health recently wrote, “the evidence is unambiguous—school buildings impact student health, thinking, and performance” (Allen et al., 2017, p. 3). Poor or substandard school buildings and grounds negatively affect the health of children and adults in schools, which in turn negatively affects
from low-income and nonwhite communities disproportionately attend schools with such facilities (Filardo et al., 2006). These conditions complicate reopening decisions and COVID-19 mitigation strategies (Filardo, 2016).
Conclusion 3.1: Keeping schools closed to in-person learning in Fall 2020 poses potential educational risks for all students. Children and youth benefit from learning experiences that include support from a teacher and interactions with peers. Even when it includes virtual interactions, distance learning cannot take the place of in-person interaction. Young relative to older children and youth are less able to engage effectively in distance learning without adult support. Additionally, it is often more difficult to provide a robust educational experience for students with disabilities in distance learning settings. As a result, the educational risks of long-term distance learning may be higher for young children and children with disabilities.
Conclusion 3.2: Opening school buildings/campuses for in-person learning to some extent in Fall 2020 would provide benefits for families beyond educating children and youth. Working caregivers would have affordable, reliable child care for school-age children, and families would be better able to access services offered through the school, such as provision of meals and other family supports (e.g., mental health services, school-based health services).
Conclusion 3.3: Even if schools open for some in-person learning in Fall 2020, they are likely to need to continue providing some distance learning for a subset of students. However, schools and communities vary in whether they have the infrastructure necessary to provide high-quality virtual learning for all children and youth. Without careful implementation, virtual learning alone runs the risk of exacerbating existing disparities in access to high-quality education across different demographic groups and communities.
their performance (Uline and Tschannen-Moran, 2008). Studies also have found significant correlations between poor structural, conditional, and aesthetic attributes of school buildings and low student learning and achievement (Maxwell, 2016). Likewise, most, though not all, studies examining the relationship between school facility investments and student achievement have found a relationship (see, e.g., Cellini, Ferreira, and Rothstein, 2010; Conlin and Thompson, 2017; Martorell, Stange, and McFarlin, 2016; and Neilson and Zimmerman, 2014).
Conclusion 3.4: Staffing is likely to be a major challenge if schools reopen for in-person instruction in Fall 2020. A significant portion of school staff are in high-risk age groups or are reluctant to return to in-person schooling because of the health risks. In addition, some of the strategies for limiting the transmission of COVID-19 within schools, such as maintaining smaller class sizes and delivering both in-person and virtual learning, will require additional instructional staff.
Conclusion 3.5: Children and youth from low-income families disproportionately attend schools with poor-quality facilities. Poor-quality school buildings (i.e., those that have bad indoor air quality, are not clean, or have inadequate bathroom facilities) complicate reopening while the COVID-19 pandemic continues and make it difficult for school districts to implement the recommended health and safety measures. Physically reopening schools with poor-quality school buildings that hinder mitigation measures may make reopening during the pandemic riskier for occupants.
This page intentionally left blank.