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Schools and Pandemic Resilience

Updated guidelines on the measures that should be taken — and by whom — to safely resume in-person learning

January 8, 2021
High school class taking test in masks

A new briefing from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, New America, and Brown University School of Public Health, draws from a growing body of evidence to recommend that K–12 schools should remain open in the pandemic, even under heightened infection rates.

Updated from recommendations put forth in July, the report from a group public health and education experts, including Harvard Graduate School of Education Professors Danielle Allen and Meira Levinson, suggests that rather than the local infection rate, it’s a school or district’s capacity to maintain infection control protocols that’s the best guide for determining the safety of opening for in-person learning. Such protocols include:

  • Everyone wearing a mask, including while speaking
  • Practicing proper hand and bathroom hygiene
  • Changing air four to six times per hour through any combination of ventilation and filtration
  • Following guidelines for social distancing — 3 feet for young learners and 6 feet for high schoolers when the community spread is over 100/100,000
  • Implementing robust quarantine policies and contract tracing practices
  • Testing for infection when possible

“It is time to transition from crisis management to the organizational and cultural change necessary for pandemic resilience,” the report reads.

The report emphasizes that in order for a school to safely provide essential functions in person, leaders need to prioritize the safety of students, staff, and educators.

This can be done by:

  1. Supporting the spread of a culture that employs precautions like masking, handwashing, and social distancing through sustained trainings, education, and communication with parents and families.
  2. Working on ensuring everyone adheres to rules for masking, small social circles, social distancing, and staying home when sick outside of school as well as in the building.
  3. Establishing an infection control team in all schools to assess risk, ensure protocols are compatible with developmentally appropriate learning, and collaborate with public health offices to bring intentionality and coherence to reopening plans.
  4. Maintaining a “situation room” at the district, county, and/or state level staffed by personnel from the Department of Education, Public Health, and Contact Tracing Corps who are prepared to respond immediately in the event of an outbreak.
  5. Working with employees and unions to adjust the academic program as needed, analyze, plan, and implement responses for both remote and in-person learning, including support for employees.
  6. Developing partnerships to deliver resources and supports like mental healthcare, work force training, and community testing.

Read the brief in full to learn more about necessary infection control measures.

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Key Takeaways
  • While legislation and policies are needed to ensure the safety of students, educators, and school staff, schools can be reopened as long as there is strict adherence to infection control strategies.
  • Trust between all stakeholders, especially between leaders and the educators and staff in schools, is necessary to ensure safety. These voices must be included in the discussions around reopening.
  • Clear presentation and communication around what we do and do not know about safety is critical.
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Education Policy K-12 School Leadership