In the midst of several large school districts nationwide announcing an online-only educational model when the new school year starts, another new study discusses the importance of reopening schools for in-person instruction.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report on Wednesday that weighed the health risks of reopening public schools against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction. The report, “Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, equity and Communities,” advises that school districts should prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for elementary students through the fifth grade and for students with special needs.
“Opening schools will benefit families beyond providing education, including by supplying childcare, school services, meals, and other family supports,” a press release from the National Academies reads. “Without in-person instruction, schools risk children falling behind academically and exacerbating educational inequities.”
The report also recommends that federal and state governments provide significant resources to districts and schools to help them cover the costs associated with COVID-19 precautions. These increased costs would be due to additional masks and cleaning, facility upgrades and reconfigured classes.
“While it will be impossible for schools to entirely eliminate the risk of COVID-19, the report says, young children in particular will be impacted by not having in-person learning and may suffer long-term academic consequences if they fall behind as a result,” the release stated.
It further suggests that children in third grade and younger are still developing skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions and attention, and will struggle with distance learning as a result.
The report also highlights precautions for school districts to take to protect staff and students from the novel coronavirus. These include providing surgical masks for all teachers and staff, and encouraging students to wear face masks, providing handwashing stations or hand sanitizer, and limiting large gatherings such as in assemblies and cafeteria.
Other recommendations include reorganizing classrooms to enable physical distancing and to prioritize cleaning, ventilation and air filtration. School districts should create cohorts between students and teachers, meaning groups remain together for the entire day.
The report noted that implementing these mitigation strategies could cost $1.8 million for a school district with eight school buildings and an enrollment of 3,200 students.
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The release of the study comes the same week as several large California school districts announced they would not be returning for in-person learning in the fall. One of these districts is Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the nation.
News articles indicated one of the reasons the district decided to not reopen physical classrooms on Aug. 18 was in response to pushback from the 18,000 members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. In a survey, 83 percent of the union members voted against the physical reopening of schools.
In addition to LAUSD in California, San Diego Unified School District, Long Beach Unified, San Bernardino Unified, San Francisco Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Stockton Unified, and Lodi Unified announced they will open for distance learning only.
Several other large city districts such as Atlanta Public Schools, Houston ISD and Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee also announced a return to distance learning, at least for the first month or two. Other districts such as Seattle Public Schools are weighing the options of hybrid models of in-person and remote education.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an executive order earlier this month to reopen all schools for in-person education in August, and to hold classes at least five days a week for all students. Local county school boards and departments of health can overturn the executive order, and parents and/or guardians can choose to have their children continue with online remote learning.