Months into the 2020-21 school year, COVID-19 continues to upend instruction and operations for schools nationwide. In some cases, students are learning digitally, prompting discussion of inequity and learning loss for students who lack strong broadband connections or access to devices. Elsewhere, students attending school in-person are adjusting to smaller or outdoor classes, altered schedules and social distancing protocols. As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise around the country, policymakers and school leaders must confront the challenges posed by the pandemic for the foreseeable future. NCSL is pleased to share resources developed in recent months to aid in decisions regarding data collection and instructional methods.
Previously released guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed considerations for school districts aiming to offer in-person learning this fall, including the use of masks, screening for symptoms, testing and protecting staff from exposure. Now, the agency has released a set of indicators to help inform district leaders in decisions about whether to use in-person, hybrid or distance learning (see chart below). The CDC recommends three core indicators: the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the local area over 14 days, the percentage of COVID-19 tests returning positive in the local area over 14 days, and the ability of schools to implement effective mitigation strategies. Based on these indicators, administrators can determine the risk of transmission in their schools and the appropriate mode of instruction.
Before the CDC released the new indicators, state leaders spent the summer months preparing to reopen schools. The National Governor’s Association compiled state plans, all of which lay out requirements or recommendations for the safe operation of schools, including cleaning, disinfecting, case monitoring and social distancing. The plans reflect the states’ diverse approaches concerning in-person and hybrid classes. Some of the approaches include:
- Tying the method of learning that schools may use to specific case levels or positivity rates at the state or local level (for example, Delaware and Minnesota).
- Allowing schools to use hybrid or in-person learning models based on the phase of the state’s economic reopening (Illinois and Indiana).
- Tying the method of instruction that districts may use to coded levels of infection, without specifying the metrics used to determine those levels (Hawaii and Colorado).
- Making recommendations for districts based on case levels, positivity rates or other metrics and designations, but leaving decision-making about learning methods to local districts (Washington and Idaho).
- Requiring some level of in-person instruction, while allowing districts to obtain a waiver based on high levels of local COVID-19 transmission (Arkansas and Iowa).
According to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, approximately half the states tie district reopening decisions to identifiable public health criteria, such as COVID-19 test positivity or local case counts. Other states allow school districts to develop these metrics in consultation with public health officials, making the delivery of education during the 2020-21 school year a highly localized affair. As pandemic conditions change, local and state plans are also subject to change: The center recently published a comprehensive database of state plans detailing decisions about reopening, instructional models, assessments and public health metrics. This resource can help policymakers track the various approaches that state leaders are taking to address learning challenges this year.
In response to a dearth of national and state data, researchers at Brown University have joined with two major associations of school administrators to create a COVID-19 School Response Dashboard (see example below). This growing database tracks cases in schools among students and staff, providing information about the conditions under which an outbreak is most likely.
As the pandemic continues, policymakers will continue to monitor data and policy options like public learning pods, broadband investment, education savings accounts and attendance support to help mitigate the harmful effects of remote learning on student achievement and engagement, while protecting public health.
Benjamin Olneck-Brown is a Research Analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.