Physical school reopening guidelines in the time of COVID-19 A Variety of Strategies with Common Messaging

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, school districts are planning for the physical reopening of schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. The stakes for a successful reopening are high as education leaders grapple with the need for both a continuity of learning and a safe environment.

To aid in the decision-making, practitioners look to guidelines developed by a variety of public health and education-serving organizations.

This briefing offers a review of school reopening guidance documents and webpages curated for resources related to the COVID-19 crisis. The review includes materials from three national organizations as well as fourteen state and regional organizations in California and Texas. Guidance documents were scanned for the publication date, evidence of stakeholder participation and information sources used in the development of the document, as well as the broad messaging statements and strategic planning categories outlined in the contents.

Recommendations Not Requirements with Local Conditions in Mind

Without exception, guidance documents were presented as recommendations and considerations rather than as requirements for action. Despite the overall framing, documents did contain information referencing education codes or used language indicating an obligation to perform. The documents frequently shifted between the language of “may” and “must.” For example, the California Department of Education instructs the reader, “In order to practice physical distancing on a school bus, the seating capacity must be reduced. This may necessitate the use of a seating chart.” Many of the documents included disclaimers stating the materials were for general information purposes only, not intended as legal advice, and education leaders were encouraged to follow federal, state or local public health guidance and government mandates.

Overall, the messaging refuted a “one-size-fits-all” approach, opting for local decision-making to tailor plans for local transmission conditions – both at school and in the community.

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Messaging from “The Uncertain Road Ahead: Reopening Schools in the time of COVID-19.” Guidance from the California School Board Association

Plan Through a Lens of Safety and Equity

Across many of the guidance documents, a commonality in messaging acknowledged the pandemic experience as a moment of rapid change that requires nimbleness on the part of education leaders and communities. There was a loud call to make physical health and safety the highest priority as well as a firm commitment to equitable educational outcomes for all students. An example graphic above from the California School Board Association illustrates this type of messaging.

While the documents did not directly address the disproportionate impact of the virus on families from racial and ethnic minority groups, planning through an equitable lens included the recommendation of additional supports for students with disabilities, students in low-income households, English learners, students impacted by homelessness and foster youth. Structures for ensuring internet connectivity and digital devices for all students were part of the equity conversation as well as plans for recouping learning loss experienced during school closures. The Texas Education Agency referred to this loss as “the COVID slide,” a phenomenon that is “real especially for students from low-income families.”

The messaging acknowledged the lasting impacts of the crisis from closing the economy, the need for parents’ return to work, and the crucial role of additional funding and regulatory flexibility to operationalize the safe reopening of schools.

In addition, planning for the reopening was framed as a process grounded in public health science, designed to inclusively engage and partner with relevant stakeholders including staff, families, community and labor. A key component was communication to stakeholders, and, in a few instances, a culturally responsive approach was suggested. Some organizations expressed concerns about the possibility of non-desirable behaviors related to COVID-19 such as discrimination, intimidation or false statements. For example, the San Diego County Office of Education provided guidance on leveraging the power of relationships and suggested protocols to establish a community agreements2 and behavior matrix co-created with student input.

“We cannot allow this public health crisis to become a generational education crisis.”

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Forefront Social-Emotional Wellness

While safety and equity were a major theme in the broader messaging, the detailed portions of the guidance documents carried more specific messaging regarding the need to forefront social-emotional learning and well-being. Establishing trauma-informed practices were listed as an essential element in helping both staff and students deal with the anxiety and loss experienced from family health concerns, isolation during school closures, and economic stress of workforce closures.

For example, the Sacramento County Office of Education encourages the development of plans to support the mental health and wellness of students, families and employees. An example graphic on the opposite page illustrates this messaging.

The California Department of Education warns “stress and trauma threaten to have long-lasting negative impacts on body and brain.” Their guidance suggests rebalancing and refocusing on the task of learning will require: 1) school safety and prevention planning; 2) community and family engagement and support; 3) staff wellness; 4) classroom strategies; and 5) early and targeted intervention for students and staff.

Similarly, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) urges districts to provide mental health supports for students and staff as they reopen schools and to: 1) balance a focus on academic and social-emotional supports; 2) enlist community partners to provide mental health support; 3) address the mental health and wellness of adults; and, 4) plan for the long haul. An example graphic on the opposite page illustrates this messaging.

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Messaging from “School Year Planning: A Guide to Address the Challenges of COVID-19.” Guidance from Sacramento County Office of Education.

A Shift in the Role of Schooling to Community Support Center

There was some aspirational language in the documents that sought to frame the pandemic experience as an opportunity to create a permanent shift in the culture of schooling. As the School Superintendents Association described it, perhaps this was a time to “transform schools and education as we know them.” But these sentiments were largely left to the initial messaging and did not reappear in the strategic component sections except as a commitment to continue to create high-quality learning environments. However, there was evidence of strategies that may signal a shift in the role of schools to become more formalized community support centers. The American Institute of Architects mentioned this in the document overview:

“Schools are the beating heart that allow our communities to flourish by nurturing the next generations of talent, heroes and leaders. While their primary purpose is to educate, school buildings and campuses provide a number of other community functions. Students, families, and communities depend on schools for food, health services, social-emotional support, creative and physical outlets, protection, and human connectivity.”

The Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools echoed this stance, “The COVID-19 crisis has proven that schools are the heart of our community, not only for learning, but for nutrition, safety and social-emotional well-being.” Both the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the Association of California School Administrators referenced the nationwide Community Schools framework in their strategic planning resources as a way to expand partnerships and meet the basic needs of students, families, and educators3.

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Messaging from the Southern Regional Education Board’s “K-12 Recovery Playbook in Progress” resource webpage.

Six Strategic Areas to Safely Reopen Schools

Beyond messaging, the strategic components of the guidance documents brought forward the detailed logistics of reopening schools. Depending upon the intended audience, the guidance documents offered a variety of recommended strategies and some variation in the depth of the guidance. Documents ranged in length from 6 to 62 pages with many providing a multitude of weblinks to access further resources. Taken as a whole, six strategic areas emerged: 1) Community; 2) Health; 3) Instruction; 4) Operations; 5) Scheduling; and, 6) Populations. The table on the opposite page some detail within each category.

For a more comprehensive list of strategic components specific to each document, see the complete matrix on the following pages. The matrix provides weblinks to the reviewed documents as well as the organization’s COVID-19 resources webpage.

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