Mitigation, reporting, stability: How we can reopen schools safely now

Chiefs for Change sees a clear path forward if states and districts take a three-pronged approach that is built around these key areas
By: and | February 22, 2021

Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer (left) is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. Dr. Peter Gorman is Chief in Residence with Chiefs for Change.

Getting every child back to school for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible is the most urgent challenge facing education leaders in 2021. Even as we brace for the transmission of new variants of the virus, achieving President Biden’s ambitious goal to safely reopen every K-8 school for in-person learning within the first 100 days of his presidency is essential to our nation’s broader efforts to recover and rebuild.

This focus is also necessary if we’re going to set students on a successful path to academic recovery. The simple facts are that while remote and hybrid models have been a necessary bridge during the pandemic, students are at risk of falling permanently behind. For nearly 17 million students across the country, many of them students of color or from low-income families who are already behind in their learning, the problem starts with limited or an outright lack of access to high-speed internet.

Since states and districts first closed their doors last March, Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs, has provided planning and implementation support to system leaders across the country. In our early work, we led efforts to provide simulation resources that helped districts and states work through the operational and logistical structures necessary to accommodate every model of academic delivery: in-person, remote, and hybrid and to address the common challenges that impede reopening. In some cases, Chiefs for Change worked directly with partners to provide grants that could support connectivity initiatives in our members’ systems, while advocating at the federal level to expand broadband to every home in America.

Through all of our work, Chiefs for Change and its members are focused on ensuring students can return as quickly and as safely as possible to in-person learning. Per the CDC, there is no scientific reason to delay efforts to open our schools, and it is imperative that we do so in ways that continue to ensure the right precautions are taken that keep our school communities safe. We see a clear path forward if states and districts take a three-pronged approach that is built around (1) planning and mitigation, (2) reporting and adaptation, and (3) stability and recovery.

Planning and mitigation

Safe reopening starts with a focus on mitigation and adherence to public health guidance, including universal acceptance of masking, a commitment to maintaining physical distancing, and limited capacity in school buildings. The full breadth of mitigation can’t fall solely on schools, though. Communities need to make broader commitments to maintain COVID protocols outside of school, including standing up regular testing processes within the community, whether on-site at schools or in nearby locations.

If those basic public health measures are in place, districts then can focus on the more specific details of their reopening approaches and begin pressure testing their reopening plans to take an objective look at the gaps which will undoubtedly exist in even the best-intentioned and best laid out plans. The surest way to identify and plan contingencies for those gaps is working through day-in-the-life-of simulations (also known as DILO simulations) for multiple student experiences (see here for the Chiefs for Change resource page for reopening and here for a Local Education Agency (LEA) resource guide and here for a State Education Agency resource guide).

Here is how a DILO simulation of a student, taking a diagnostic test in an in-person learning setting might play out. Say Josh feels sick during homeroom:

While the steps appear straightforward, schools must prepare for a variety of “what if” scenarios resulting from this process.

What if a responsible adult is unable to pick Josh up from school?

What if Josh tests positive but returns to school too early or with symptoms?

Running any comprehensive DILO simulation requires multiple team members and coordination across multiple workstreams. In our work with districts, we have found that it takes a core leadership team to serve as the “nerve center” to lead the process, gather data, and map each journey through reopening and mitigation strategies to ensure schools can remain open safely.

(A more complete and comprehensive overview of how districts can conduct DILO simulations can be found here.)

Reporting and adaptation

A plan is a necessary first step, but not a guarantee of success. In our work, we’ve also helped districts execute. We’re coaching leaders to structure their teams to embrace a culture that is flexible, decisive, and responsive to data. We’ve worked with teams and partners to create and use COVID data tracking tools and dashboards that help administrators monitor school-level health data and key academic indicators.

Specifically, this kind of tracking can provide school boards, public health partners, and the general public with regular reporting about case counts at a school and district level and support contact tracing efforts that inform important quarantine and school closure decisions. These data can be used to adapt or refine plans, identify challenges early on, and inform leaders and educators of learning recovery needs, and to pinpoint academic acceleration planning efforts.

Stability and recovery

When our work started last spring and summer, most leaders’ primary focus was to ensure that districts could start the school year. While a number of districts across the country were successfully able to reopen – and stay open – for in-person learning, many others have not yet been able to do so.

As we move toward a safe, universal return to in-person learning, we need to all be working together with collective urgency to ensure educators are prioritized for the vaccine rollout, that schools and districts have the protective equipment and mitigation resources they need to stay open safely, and that we prioritize the communication function of our systems to ensure families, educators, and the public get clear reporting out that they can trust.

To put it most simply: if we prioritize educators in our vaccination plans, we can reduce the risks and ensure that parents, students, and community members feel safe coming back to school.

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In our work, we’ve found repeatedly that the districts that have reopened most successfully have done so in part by making sure that parents, students, and educators feel safe being back in an in-person school setting. To help further build trust and confidence that has included collaborative work with community partners to develop clearly articulated vaccination protocols.

All of the resources we’ve developed are publicly available and free for downloading because we recognize that reopening schools – and with it, the larger American economy – cannot happen without every state, every district and every school committing to the work. We recently released a Planning Workbook for districts looking to set up testing programs, whether on their own or in partnership with health providers, and we will be releasing additional materials and hosting webinars in the weeks ahead. These tools provide states and districts with operational direction and borrow battle-tested organizational tactics from corporate crisis response trainings, including clear recommendations for the creation of a ‘nerve center’ within central offices that will allow districts to run at two speeds: one that runs quickly and responsively to address emerging challenges and crises and one that takes a more deliberative (though just as quickly) pace to address long-term academic and social and emotional recovery so kids’ futures aren’t lost to this pandemic response.

The CDC’s latest guidance on reopening schools – which encourages universal masking, hand washing, cleaning and ventilation – is an encouraging start. These strategies must be coupled with robust COVID-19 testing programs for the duration of the pandemic. Fortunately, organizations like Chiefs for Change are working to help school administrators implement the plans they need and will continue to be a resource for school districts and education leaders across the country to ensure we collectively continue the hard work of academic recovery. Our children’s future depends on it.

Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. A former assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department, Rafal-Baer earned a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Marshall Scholar. She began her career as a special-education teacher in the Bronx.

Dr. Peter Gorman is Chief in Residence with Chiefs For Change, executive coach for superintendents and senior leadership teams, and the author of the book, “Leading a School District Requires Clarity, Context, and Candor: An Aligned System to Increase Student Achievement at Scale.” He is the former Superintendent of the Tustin Unified School District and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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