“As hard as closing was, opening is harder.” - Eric Gordon, CEO of Cleveland Metropolitan School District
On Wednesday, March 24, the U.S. Department of Education held a virtual public summit on the national safe reopening of schools. Opening the discussion was First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, herself an educator, with a commentary on the community of education. The following three hours the audience heard from leaders in multiple districts across the country, as well as leaders from the U.S. Department of Education and the Center for Disease Control. What quickly emerged was the theme that all of these education leaders are sharing best practices and working together to find the path to safely reopen our nation’s schools. Strategies for accomplishing this goal included a layered approach: mask-wearing, retrofit of school buildings, vaccination efforts, PPE and more. Sounds good. Sounds like it’ll work, right? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Layer It Up
Of the many strategies discussed during the summit, most of the panelists and contributors agreed on a layered approach to ensuring schools could reopen safely. By “layered” they mean combining precautions such as mask-wearing during the school day, retrofitting of school buildings for maximum airflow, coordinating vaccination efforts for staff, creating signage for school buildings for social distancing and to organize the flow of foot traffic. And, of course, any solution to stop the spread of a virus must include personal protective equipment or PPE. Stockpiles of masks and sanitizer are created so masks can be provided should anyone in the building forget theirs. Many school districts reported sanitization stations were set up around schools for students and staff to use, and environmental specialists were consulted to teach sanitization knowledge. And how do school districts pay for this? The answer is dual-faceted. District leaders pointed out that many of these strategies are no cost or low cost, such as creating signage for proper flow, or removing unnecessary furniture from schools to allow for social distancing. Coordinating vaccination efforts can be a volunteer-based initiative. And for those strategies that do have costs tied to them, such as stockpiling PPE or retrofitting of school buildings to maximize airflow and improve air filtration, many schools use federal COVID relief funding. The newly signed American Rescue Plan is providing $122 billion to schools to support in safe reopening efforts over the next month.
Learn From Those Who Are Succeeding
“We didn’t get into this pandemic crisis overnight and we are not going to emerge from it overnight.” - Shari Obrenski, Cleveland Teachers Union President
We all know there are some school districts across the country that have been able to remain open, and also some that closed and reopened successfully, such as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD). Advice from leaders in Cleveland centered around collaboration - educators connecting with parents. Obrenski pointed out that it is necessary to bring all voices to the decision-making table, even if it is messy and difficult. Keeping students’ interests at the forefront of all discussions and being flexible in making decisions and carrying them out will make a great deal of difference, according to Obrenski.
Former student and school district intern at CMSD Trevon Edwards stressed the importance of checking in on one another. Mental health and wellness can be overlooked at times, said Edwards, but teachers and staff should be routinely reaching out to their students. Once this communication is established, the rest will fall into place.
Anisha Ward, a student at Bostonia Learning Academy in El Cajon, California, weighs in on current efforts to get the students back into the classroom and keep families connected to the process of reopening.
“I know something that has been supporting us and making us feel more safe, cared about and comfortable - is the role of our teachers. They are not only our teachers now, they are our counselors, our friends, we can go to them, we can talk to them, we have really strong relationships with them,” Ward says.
And this collaboration has to have intention. Follow the best practices of colleagues and prioritize the social and emotional well-being of students and staff.
“We learn best by listening to others who are experiencing similar situations, and talking and sharing best practices,” said Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education.
Put Equity At Forefront
All education leaders who participated agreed that equity must be embedded throughout the approach to reopening of schools. Start with the knowledge and belief that every person brings something valuable to the school community, and make your decisions based on those facts.The idea of “equity checkpoints” was raised by Donna Harris-Aikens, Senior Advisor for Policy & Planning in the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Education. Harris-Aikens reminded us that educators and district leaders should ask themselves, who is most impacted by your decisions? Who are you prioritizing for in-person instruction? Who needs it first and do those answers match? And then ensure the voices of those most affected are sitting at the table making decisions. Needs must match decisions. And they must match before actions are taken and decisions rolled out.
“Equity is the first lens through which you view a challenge, and serves as a foundation for those solutions, instead of the last lens,” said Harris-Aikens.
Will It Work?
Only time will tell if these strategies are the magic ticket to safely reopening schools. What we do know is that the schools that are thinking creatively and strategically are leading the way. We need to learn from their successes and correct any mistakes that arise, in order to stay open.
As Secretary Miguel Cardona said, “America, together, we got this.”