Testing/Vaccination and Remote Instruction
COVID-19 Testing and Vaccination
Since the beginning of the pandemic, public health officials have emphasized that widespread testing and contact tracing are necessary to limit caseloads and return institutions—including schools—to normal operation. Schools and districts that chose to operate with in-person or hybrid instruction models in the fall built testing and contract tracing protocols into their reopening plans. Thus far, most testing and quarantine protocols have focused on identified and symptomatic cases in the school community and their close contacts. Current CDC guidelines recommend testing symptomatic school community members and their close contacts, and suggest using screening testing to identify outbreaks and limit spread.
Leading public health experts argue that states and local governments should prioritize opening schools ahead of bars, restaurants and other businesses. The American Academy of Pediatrics urged a safe return to school this fall, citing negative impacts on students’ academic performance, physical and mental health, and social and emotional development resulting from closed campuses. However, widespread school closures indicate more robust testing and contact tracing may be needed to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools and return students to the classroom full time.
To build out testing infrastructure in local communities, the Rockefeller Foundation has worked with state leaders to form the State and Territory Alliance for Testing (STAT). With 22 participating states, STAT aims to institute rapid testing in schools and other essential settings and to improve states’ logistical testing and contact tracing capacities to facilitate reopening. President Biden has committed to reopening schools, and to pursuing billions of dollars in federal funding for regular rapid testing of students, teachers and staff. Although increased availability of rapid tests may aid in detecting COVID-19 outbreaks and reducing the spread of the virus, public health officials warn that testing must be part of a broader strategy, including mitigation measures like masks, sanitation and vaccination for school staff and teachers.
As the FDA moved toward its December authorization of multiple COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, discussion centered on plans for vaccine distribution and prioritization. In particular, policymakers debated how to balance prioritizing vaccines for essential front-line workers, including teachers and school staff, versus older adults who are more susceptible to severe outcomes from COVID-19. On Dec. 22, 2020, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) updated its recommendations for vaccine distribution: frontline workers, including school staff, are included in group “1B,” along with individuals 75 and older. This group is recommended to receive the vaccine after most healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities are vaccinated, but before the general population under 75.
On March 2nd, President Biden issued a directive that made teachers and school staff eligible for vaccination in all states and territories through the federal government's Retail Pharmacy Vaccination Program. In addition to eligibility for at least some teachers through at least 45 states' vaccination programs, this directive is aimed at innoculating all K-12 and early childcare staff with at least one vaccine dose by the end of March. Although CDC recommendations state that schools can operate safely with some amount of in-person instruction even before teachers and staff receive the vaccine, teachers' unions and other advocates, particularly in major cities, have vehemently opposed a return to the classroom prior to vaccination. As vaccination has progressed, more schools are operating under a hybrid or fully in-person model, and officials express hope that almost all students will receive safe in-person instruction before the end of the school year.
Last year, all states and territories developed vaccination plans, which specify how the state will distribute vaccines allocated to them by the federal government and which groups will be prioritized. According to analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 states adhered to ACIP guidelines for phase “1A” vaccination, focused on long-term care residents and health care workers. According to a review by the National Academy for State Health Policy, 38 states plan to vaccinate teachers and school staff in Phase One. Among states that have established their phase 1B and 1C vaccination plans, approaches include:
- Adhering to ACIP guidelines, prioritizing frontline workers, including school staff, along with individuals 75 and over for phase 1B vaccination.
- Prioritizing all individuals 65 and over prior to frontline workers, including school staff, for phase 1B vaccination (e.g. Alabama, Maryland).
- Prioritizing individuals 65 and over with high-risk medical conditions prior to frontline workers, including school staff, for phase 1B vaccination (e.g. North Carolina, Tennessee).
As conditions change and the supply of vaccinations increases, states have moved forward, including more groups for vaccine eligibility or altering their plans and eligibility categories. Education Week tracks vaccination eligibility for teachers and school staff: as of March 9th, all teachers and staff were eligible for a vaccine in 41 states. In West Virginia and Florida, teachers and school staff above a certain age were eligible. In Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, teachers and staff in some jurisdictions were eligible. In five states, teachers and staff were not yet in an eligiblity group. In all fifty states, the federal Retail Pharmacy program is prioritizing vaccinations for teachers and school staff, separate from state vaccine allocations.
As states vaccinate more teachers and school staff, along with other essential workers, debate in some legislatures has shifted to whether schools and employers can require vaccinations as a condition of employment. Many districts require certain vaccinations for students and staff against other diseases, and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance that such requirements, with certain medical or religious exemptions, will be legally valid for the COVID-19 vaccine. Proponents of vaccination requirements argue that they are necessary to protect the school community from infectious disease, while opponents contend that such requirements infringe on individual's rights to make personal healthcare decisions. Legislation has been introduced in states including Arkansas, Colorado and Connecticut that would prohibit employers or state agencies, including schools, from requiring COVID-19 vaccination.
States also acted to develop testing plans, submitted to the CDC. States including Colorado, Connecticut and Louisiana identified school staff and students as priority populations for surveillance testing in order to identify outbreaks and curb the spread of COVID-19. For more information on testing and vaccination, please consult NCSL’s Health Program.
Remote and hybrid learning have become commonplace across the U.S. during the pandemic, and with high case counts throughout the country, these instructional models will likely be a part of students’ lives through the spring semester and perhaps into the next school year. However, remote learning has not been deployed uniformly. Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) analysis showed that more than half of school districts began the year with some form of hybrid or distance learning, but that students living in or near poverty were more likely than their higher-income peers to start the school year remotely. Later analysis showed that through the fall, urban districts with larger populations of students of color were significantly more likely to continue remote instruction.
Midway through the spring semester, data indicate that while only 14% of districts were operating fully remotely, high-poverty districts are more likely to be using this instruction method, but also more likely to be using full-time in-person, as opposed to hybrid, instruction. Large and urban districts are also far more likely to employ remote instruction: as of March 9th, 29% of urban and 20% of suburban districts were operating remotely, while only 7.4% of rural districts were doing so, and more than twice as many rural districts than urban or suburban districts were using full-time in-person instruction. Nearly one-quarter of large districts, compared to less than 10% of small districts, were using remote instruction, while nearly half of small districts and only a quarter of large districts were employing full-time in-person instruction.
These divergences raise concerns that income- and race-based achievement gaps will grow during the pandemic: low-income students and students of color are more likely than their peers to lack broadband and these students uniquely benefit from in-person interaction with educators. Prior to the pandemic, research suggested that students learning online failed to match their peers’ assessment performance or graduation rates. As this school year began, major news reports documented the struggles low-income students faced when trying to complete remote work or even attend class. By mid-spring, although low-broadband districts were less likely than high-broadband districts to employ full-time remote instruction, more than half of low-broadband districts were incorporating some remote instruction, including hybrid models.
As case counts have risen in rural communities, more rural districts have considered or moved to remote or hybrid instruction than at the beginning of the pandemic, prompting concerns that a lack of broadband access may affect students’ ability to learn. Students in rural communities face particularly severe challenges in accessing the internet for schoolwork. Pew Research has found that as many as 15% of school-age children lack in-home connectivity, and this number doubles for students in families with income below $30,000. Low-income students in rural communities may face nearly insurmountable difficulties in completing schoolwork or attending class online. This homework gap extends to the devices to which students have access: Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are more likely to try to complete schoolwork on a cell phone rather than a desktop or laptop computer.
The State Education Technology Directors’ Association (SETDA) has studied the broadband imperative for years, emphasizing state agency and district efforts to partner with the private sector to distribute hotspots and devices and improve broadband networks for students who lack connectivity. The federal E-Rate program supports broadband connectivity and other digital learning infrastructure for schools and libraries, and during the COVID-19 crisis schools can purchase additional bandwidth to improve remote learning.
Across the political spectrum, commentators have argued that COVID-19 provides an opportunity to reimagine remote learning and better incorporate digital technologies into schooling. The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute recommended major investments in staff training for digital instruction, broadband and device access, and social-emotional needs for students learning from home. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute suggested that the proliferation of pandemic learning pods indicates an appetite for school choice programs like hybrid homeschooling and education savings accounts. Khan Academy, the most successful provider of free online learning resources, has launched new tutoring programs to improve the quality of learning for students using its product.
States have acted since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis to support broadband connectivity and remote learning access, primarily by creating or expanding grant programs for schools and districts. Enacted bills include:
- Idaho HB 576—Creates a new source of funding for digital curriculum to which school districts can apply, with the state department of education awarding grants of up to $50,000.
- Colorado HB 1001a—Concerns support for expanding broadband access for preschool through twelfth grade education; creates the connecting Colorado students grant program to provide grants to local education providers to use in providing broadband service and other technology for increased internet access for students, educators, and other staff; creates the connecting Colorado students grant program fund; requires the Department of Education to develop a list of free or low-cost broadband services.
- Mississippi HB 1792—Appropriates $150 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to schools for remote instruction, creating the Equity in Distance Learning Fund.
- Pennsylvania HB 1210—Establishes emergency grants to schools for use in staff training, physical school safety, distance learning, and other needs.
The CARES Act provided billions of dollars to states to support K-12 education. States have used these funds to address the digital divide, including:
- The West Virginia Kids Connect Initiative—Adds broadband extenders to school and community sites and provides hotspots to students who lack in-home connectivity.
- Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students—Provides vouchers that families can use to purchase devices for remote learning.
- Virtual Virginia—CARES Act funds support this resource, which allows teachers to share online instruction content and resources statewide.
The recently passed American Rescue Plan included more than $120 billion in funding for schools. It is likely that districts will continue to use these funds to upgrade broadband connectivity and digital learning infrastructure. For questions on state uses of federal relief funds, consult NCSL's federal affairs program.