UPDATE: Sept. 22, 2020: A report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office found the "lack of cogent, clear, and consistent federal guidance on the operating status of K-12 schools as an area of concern." It pointed out reopening guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for state and school district officials has been inconsistent, and that certain U.S. Department of Education guidance was "misaligned with risk-based decision-making," which the report says could have added to the confusion.
- Almost half of states didn't provide clear public health guidance to districts making reopening decisions, according to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).
- The majority of those that didn't provide clear guidance deferred to local districts to make reopening decisions, the organization found in its analysis of state reopening plans, and four states — Arkansas, Texas, New Jersey and Florida — required schools to offer in-person instruction regardless of COVID-19 spread.
- Those that did offer some form of guidance used varying benchmarks (such as positivity rate or number of new cases per day) to determine whether it was safe to reopen. Those benchmarks often didn't align with research and recommendations from groups like the World Health Organization, CRPE found.
According to a separate CRPE report released in August, nearly half of school districts were planning full in-person instruction, with rural areas far more likely to return to a brick-and-mortar environment and 85% of districts nationwide offering a remote instruction option.
Leading up to the beginning of the school year, many of the nation's largest school districts walked back in-person reopening plans. New York City Public Schools is the only of the largest urban districts to move forward with in-person instruction, but even that plan was pushed to late September after an agreement with the city's teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers.
Lack of clarity around reopening is trickling down to districts in some places, with UFT President Michael Mulgrew saying in a press call Monday there has been uncertainty around instruction and the viability of reopening in person.
The lack of guidance on the state and federal levels highlighted in CRPE's report could be, in part, due to many legislators and education leaders pushing for local control of reopening decisions they said should be made in concert with local public health officials.
However, the report says turning to local health officials without state-level guidance "jeopardizes the safe and timely reopening of public schools and opens the door to local decisions shaped by politics, not public health."
While the federal government initially pushed for the reopening of schools, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), later said schools in COVID-19 "hotspots" may have to delay a return to the classroom, according to a news brief from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota. The CDC guidelines, updated Aug. 26, also suggest cohorting students along with other mitigation strategies like wearing masks and social distancing.
"Vague and varying guidelines leave reopening vulnerable to shifting politics and may contribute to a crisis of confidence among teachers and parents about going back to school," the CRPE report suggests.
Indeed, a new poll released by the American Federation of Teachers and Hart Research Associates, which surveyed 1,001 parents and 816 public school teachers, shows parents and teachers are worried school districts will move to reopen sooner rather than later.
In addition, some ed leaders told Education Dive that uncertainty at the district-level has created angst among parents and teachers. Communication and transparency with families, even around the uncertainty of what may happen and the number of possible plans, is key, they say.