It’s no secret that the national debate about reopening schools has been heating up. State and federal policymakers, teachers and administrators, and education advocates of all stripes have been deliberating two sets of guidance, one from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the other from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Both groups have the health and safety of students and staff at top of mind, but their recommendations differ.
In the midst of these discussions, Governor DeWine unveiled Ohio’s guidance for schools to reopen. The long-awaited plan covers health and prevention guidelines aimed at protecting students and staff, as well as a planning guide to help schools respond to the new academic and operational realities of attending school in the midst of a pandemic. There is CDC guidance sprinkled all over the health and prevention guidelines. And the planning guide explicitly notes that if schools cannot meet the state’s health guidelines, “they should continue remote learning until they can.” But the health guidelines also note the AAP’s assertion that “schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being.” In short, Ohio has pursued middle ground, incorporating aspects of each set of guidance.
The state also struck a balance between requirements, strongly worded recommendations, and local flexibility. Some of the health guidelines are required, as evidenced by words like “must,” while others are merely suggestions. In terms of academics and operations, there are virtually no concrete expectations from the state. Overall, most of the decision-making power in both areas has been left up to local leaders. Here’s a look at a few of the big takeaways.
Health and safety
The health and safety guidelines for schools are divided into five sections: assessing and tracking symptoms, washing and sanitizing hands, cleaning school environments, spacing students out via social distancing, and wearing facial coverings. Each section contains several links to CDC resources and scientific research, and most of the guidelines are common sense. For instance, schools must provide hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas, such as building and classroom entrances. Staff must clean surfaces frequently and pay particularly close attention to high-touch areas and shared materials. And if students or staff begin to show symptoms, they must immediately be separated from others and referred to a healthcare professional or a testing site.
Recommendations around social distancing, on the other hand, appear to be more suggestive in nature. The document notes that social distancing is “key” to preventing the spread of Covid-19, but it doesn’t say that schools must practice it. Instead, staff and students “should try when possible” to practice social distancing. Busing is a good example—school officials “should endeavor to do the best they can to keep social distancing on buses,” but it’s not a requirement. That’s a big deal because requiring social distancing on buses would have made transporting students almost impossible logistically. It also means that one of the primary methods used to reduce transmission isn’t required.
The most strongly worded guideline relates to facial coverings. School staff, including volunteers, must wear a mask while on site. There are some exceptions, but the guidelines warn that schools must be prepared to “provide written justification to local health officials upon request” to explain why a staff member isn’t wearing a mask. When it comes to students, though, the state has opted to defer to schools. Schools must establish a face-mask policy for students, but the contents of that policy are up to local leaders. Despite this flexibility, the guidelines strongly recommend that students in third grade and above wear a mask unless they are unable to do so for health or developmental reasons. And although the guidelines recognize that students being transported via buses “are at an increased risk for transmission,” the state stops short of requiring students to wear masks while riding them. Instead, it is “strongly recommended.”
Academics and operations
The state’s planning guide focuses on four guiding principles: caring for the health and well-being of students and staff, prioritizing student learning, ensuring effective teaching, and operating efficiently, effectively, and responsibly. The bulk of the state’s recommendations for health and safety can be found in the separate guidance document outlined above. But the planning guide also contains some important provisions worth mentioning. For instance, the state calls on schools to provide age-appropriate instruction to students on health and safety practices and for employees to receive similar training. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and the Ohio Department of Health have vowed to make general training resources for school personnel available soon.
Unlike the health and safety guidelines, which contain several musts, the “return-to-school considerations” are not mandatory. Operational decisions about the use of space and time have been left up to local leaders. For example, it’s up to schools how to group students during the day; where and when to use buildings (including on nights and weekends); whether they will offer classroom-based, remote, or personalized learning (or some combination of all three); and whether to alternate the days students attend school in person to maintain social distancing. The state recommends—but does not require—that schools provide remote learning all year, “as many families will have higher-risk health concerns and/or may not feel comfortable with in-person instruction until a vaccine is available.”
Attendance tracking will also change. The health and prevention guidance notes that though schools must monitor daily absences for trends, “sick leave and absence policies should not penalize staff or students for staying home when symptomatic or in quarantine.” The planning guide, meanwhile, recommends that schools “consider a measure that encourages consistent attendance or consistent participation” rather than perfect attendance, particularly as some families may not be comfortable sending their students back to school.
In terms of academics, the planning guide contains a considerable amount of flexibility. For instance, diagnostic testing is described as a crucial part of understanding where students are and what kind of support they need. ODE plans to provide resources for teachers that are based on released state test items. But it’s up to districts to decide if, how, and when they want to assess their students. The same is true for the content students will be taught. Despite emphasizing that the commitment to Ohio’s learning standards “must continue to be strong,” schools will be able to decide whether they want to “support a more focused or streamlined curriculum” that emphasizes “the most essential concepts” in any given subject.
Flexibility also extends to issues such as grading, grade promotion, remediation, student discipline, and services for subgroups such as students with special needs, English-language learners, and gifted students. Rather than set clear academic expectations that all schools must follow, the guide offers an “essential questions” checklist that schools should review. Questions include the following: “How will you ensure inclusion of students with disabilities and meeting their needs (academic and physical)?,” “Are you using assessment data to create individual English learner plans with specific goals, especially to mitigate learning loss?,” and “What happens to students who do not comply with safety procedures?” The answers to these and other questions are entirely up to local leaders, with no clear-cut expectations from the state (though it’s worth noting that there are additional resources available for certain topics, such as English learners and social emotional learning). Such a heavy emphasis on flexibility is understandable. In Ohio, the impacts of the pandemic range widely from school to school and region to region. But with virtually zero academic expectations from the state, there is a high likelihood that achievement gaps and other inequities will grow.
To be fair, the guide does emphasize the important of assessing and addressing the needs of vulnerable youth. It notes that equity challenges “have been recognized in education for some time, yet the pandemic is revealing and exacerbating deeply rooted social and educational inequities.” Unfortunately, though, the guide doesn’t offer schools many concrete examples of how to ensure that equity is prioritized or achieved. Instead, it identifies sweeping approaches such as ensuring “cultural relevancy and student choice” and working to “recognize the manifestations of implicit bias and eliminate or overcome it.” These are worthy suggestions, to be sure. And it’s possible that the state didn’t include concrete examples for the same reason it didn’t mandate decisions on remote learning—local leadership and implementation efforts are key. Nevertheless, schools have a tall task ahead of them in dealing with the academic fallout of this pandemic. Concrete examples, resources, and expectations are crucial.
The upshot of all this is that although the planning guide and health guidelines are useful and important for school leaders, they aren’t particularly helpful in determining what school will look like in the fall. The real answers about how schools plan to manage health risks and mitigate learning losses will be found in local, school-specific plans. In the coming weeks, students, families, and educators will need to pay close attention to the reopening plans that are proposed by their schools.