Vallas: When Schools Reopen, It Will Be Our Responsibility to Make Sure It Happens Safely. Here Are 10 Key Steps to Follow

Hurricane Katrina aftermath on August 31, 2005, in New Orleans (Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

No one wants to send their child back to school without a certain comfort level. If we learned anything from another major disaster, Hurricane Katrina, it was that massive destruction and loss of life can be caused by human mismanagement. In that case, neglect of the levees that were intended to keep New Orleans safe from storm-spawned flooding rendered them useless, turning a serious storm into an unprecedented tragedy.

During COVID-19, we must better manage our levees — or, in this case, our schools. Wisely planning, designing and building safety protocols to keep our most precious assets — our children — healthy is incumbent on every school community. But schools right now also have a historic opportunity to create the infrastructure needed to ensure uninterrupted instruction in the “new normal.”

We must act immediately. The closure of schools means that more than 76 million American children are not receiving normal instruction. Some aren’t learning at all. Teachers report having a hard time finding their students, with their most vulnerable ones most likely to be unreachable and many schools belatedly realizing that parental contact information was not up to date

Teachers are trying to provide online lessons that they are not equipped or trained to deliver to children who may not have or know how to use technology for learning remotely. Designing, developing and implementing a genuine online program can take as long as a year; at best, most district teachers had just a few short weeks to get up and running when the coronavirus hit. Many are trying to teach while caring for their own children at the same time.

Low-income children lack access to school breakfasts and lunches, online learning resources and technology, and effective home learning environments. Schools are their safe havens and centers of social service support. 

The Brookings Institution estimates that American students will earn an estimated $33,500 less over the span of their careers because of education already lost during the coronavirus shutdown, and marginalized communities will feel it most keenly. 

If schools open on schedule next fall, children will have effectively been out of class for five months. In Chicago, that comes on top of instruction lost during October’s 15-day teacher strike. Absence of adequate instructional time on task and long breaks in learning are extremely damaging to students. A study of children in third to fifth grades showed that students already lose, on average, about 20 percent of their school-year gains in reading and 27 percent in math during summer break. The longer the break, the more knowledge is lost and learning capability diminished. 

Yet, out of necessity, 44 states have closed their schools for the remainder of the academic year. The damage that has been done to students may never be reversed unless schools put the infrastructure and protocols in place to avoid further disruptions next year and take steps to compensate for lost instructional time.

Here are some key steps to follow:

1. Embark upon a school- or district-based COVID-19 public education and health campaign

An active, fully transparent communication strategy is required to provide updates on public-health status, effectively explain school procedures and protocols, alert schools of students or faculty exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and promote proper health-safety behavior in the community.

2. Create school health-safety teams

Each school should have a health-safety team that reports to the principal and is led by a nurse and/or a retired physician. Teams should be drawn from the larger community and be guided by the city or county health department.

3. Develop capacity to conduct school-based COVID-19 testing and tracking

Testing, as well as temperature checking, needs to be available at every school site for staff, children and, if need be, families. Schools should also have the capacity to assist public-health agencies in contact tracing. School administrators and staff need to be tested first.

4. Establish and enforce strict quarantine procedures

Strict, clear and enforceable quarantine protocols need to be in place for dealing with staff and students who have tested positive and to enable students to remain remotely connected to the classroom. Given that younger people are far less likely to become gravely ill from COVID-19, older teachers or those with other medical conditions could remain home while younger teachers and children return to school.

5. Adopt and enforce a practical, comprehensive social distancing strategy

There should be commonsense procedures for social distancing that minimizes contact and provides safe spacing. This includes classroom seating, lunchrooms and common spaces, physical education, classroom movement and student testing. Split scheduling and blended (on-site and online) learning can minimize contact.

6. Assess and evaluate students to determine most appropriate interventions

Prior to reopening, schools should assess and evaluate where students are academically, behaviorally and emotionally, to determine the most appropriate interventions and support. A short-term strategy should seek to stem damage done from the extended school closures, while a long-term strategy should customize education and supports to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

7. Provide for a summer semester of academic and enrichment activities

Schools should reopen for the summer and provide instruction, enrichment and support to prevent further brain atrophy and social-emotional health deterioration. These can be conducted online and remotely as well.

8. Accelerate the push for every school to offer quality remote learning and support

Development of remote learning platforms should be schools’ overriding objective in the summer. Not only will this ensure educational continuity, but it will provide the means to increase learning time, expand educational choices, extend academic and social-emotional interventions and provide additional teacher supports.

9. Increase teacher training and support on topics that matter now

Schools need to select their remote learning strategies, access available remote learning resource portals, and provide teachers and other instructional support staff with training and coaching to use these tools most effectively. 

10. Secure and support technology infrastructure

Identify which students lack access to the internet and/or a device and determine which device and plan best fit. Determine the best internet options for students who do not have access at home, and distribute a hotspot where there is a need.

Implementing more personalized instruction and support programs, expanding quality educational choices and increasing instructional learning time are essential for weathering the pandemic and shoring up schools against future public-health emergencies or other unforeseen disruptions. But they are also needed to increase educational equity and close opportunity gaps. None of these opportunities can be squandered. The hard work must be done — everywhere. 

This is a leadership issue. The models and the technology are available to accomplish all of the above, and the resources are available if effectively prioritized. In the CARES stimulus package, Congress included an 80 percent increase in federal funding for education using the Title I distribution formula. There are good prospects for a second round of funding, the continuation of a $4 billion federal e-rate program and Medicaid reimbursements for medical-related services and supports for low-income students. If resources are managed correctly, parents should be able to send their children back to schools that look and act differently while fulfilling their core function better than they historically have done. 

Paul Vallas was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and The Public Schools of Philadelphia and superintendent of the Recovery School District in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.

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