I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, June 26, 2020

What an Actual School Reopening Plan Looks Like

Several states, particularly in the Northeast, have begun releasing their plans to reopen K-12 schools. Connecticut, for example, just released a plan yesterday; New Jersey is scheduled to release one today.

I'm going to hold off commenting on any individual state's plans for now. Instead, I'm going to sketch out what I think a statewide plan for reopening schools should look like. I won't pretend this is comprehensive, and I'm happy to accept any comments or criticisms. But I do think we need to set some standards for what states need to do to help school districts get ready for reopening in the fall.

And so, here are the features at a minimum that I believe a real statewide school reopening plan must have:

- Minimal requirements for staff and student personal protective equipment (PPE), as provided by school districts (as a matter of equity, no plan should require staff and students to supply their own PPE).

- Clear guidelines and minimal standards for implementing social distancing, mask wearing, and other actions to mitigate Covid-19 spread. In other words, if there is social distancing in the plan, there has to be a minimal distance that must be maintained at all times. If masks are required, the plan should spell out the type of mask (N95, surgical, cloth, etc.).

- A separate set of guidelines and standards for students with disabilities, including medically fragile students and students with profound cognitive impairments. Obviously there has to be some flexibility here as there is great variation in student needs, but minimal standards have to be included.

- Clearly outlined PPE requirements and best practices for staff working with these students. Many times these staff have to deal with things like toileting; I would argue the standards for safety here should be on par with those for medical personnel.

- Guidelines and minimal standards for transportation to and from school.

- Guidelines and minimal standards for before- and after-school childcare providers that work on school grounds and/or in cooperation with districts.

- Same guidelines for extra-curriculars, including specific rules for various sports practices and competitions, and performing arts rehearsals & performances.

- A clear set of guidelines for when schools must close due to the threat of Covid-19 spread, including minimal standards to be met before schools can reopen. For example: must a school close if a case of non-symptomatic Covid-19 is confirmed? For how long?

- Standards for district plans for fully-online instruction in case of school closure; this must include minimal standards for student and staff access to devices and broadband internet.

- A plan to centralize procurement of PPE and other necessary materials so as to avoid bidding wars between states and school districts.

- An estimated per district budget for implementing all of the above.


Some might argue that school districts need flexibility to implement plans to reopen their schools. That may be, but that doesn't diminish the need for districts to adhere to standards for reopening. States require districts to meet certain standards when developing curriculum or hiring staff; they should also have to meet standards for student and staff safety during a pandemic. 

Further, setting standards for safely operating in a pandemic allows states and districts to develop budgets, and then develop plans to fund those budgets. This is precisely what should be happening now, during the summer months: states should be estimating the costs of reopening safely, and implementing plans to raise the funds to do so. 

This can't wait -- it has to happen now. Districts need to know what they are expected to do. They can't set different standards; if they do, they run the risk of fostering inequity in student safety across different districts. This will only make it more difficult to contain and manage the spread of the pandemic. And districts do not have the capacities to make public health decisions unilaterally; they need guidance and support from public health officials who are experienced and knowledgeable in these areas of public policy.

Setting standards and budgets in state plans now would also have the benefit of forcing the issue on to the national stage. As Bruce Baker, Drew Atchison and I have noted, only the federal government has the capacity to raise revenues on the scale needed to safely operate schools over the next several years. Congress should be addressing this issue right now -- not in a couple of months, when it's too late.

Again, this is preliminary; I'm happy to hear what I've missed. But we've got to start moving the policymaking on this issue now.

ADDING: Can't believe I forgot this: states have to make decisions now regarding statewide assessments and graduation requirements. I know there are federal requirements that have to be followed, but to the extent states can make changes they should do so. My vote would be to suspend all exit exams for at least the next year, and to apply for federal waivers for all mandated testing.

Speaking of testing: @JenAnsbach points out funding for Covid-19 testing should be included in budgets, and guidelines should be set for when districts test staff and students.


NY Teacher said...

Your are omitting a key element to any new rule (mandatory masks; 6' SD):
enforcement/consequences. This of course will add a whole new layer discipline issues, especially with those students who find defiance and combativeness a sport. Social distancing and mask wearing will prove to be unworkable for these reasons. Then what . . . ?

NY Teacher said...

School districts will need legal protections against lawsuits should students, staff, or relatives become infected.