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How to Reopen Schools: A 10-Point Plan Putting Equity at the Center

Updated: May 19, 2020

This article originally appeared in Getting Smart on April 29, 2020 by Eric Tucker and Tom Vanderark.

With nearly all U.S. school buildings closed for the year, teachers and leaders have scrambled to support remote learning and respond to the emerging needs of 57 million elementary and secondary students. As challenging as it is today, it’s time to begin planning for next year. The damage the pandemic has already caused, its lingering health concerns, and the potential for resurgence make preparation to reopen a complex but urgent affair.

“We have both a historic opportunity and an obligation to create approaches to reopening schools that work for all groups of students all of the time, not just some groups of students some of the time,” writes Russlynn Ali, co-founder, and CEO of the XQ Institute.

Based on insights and resources from practitioners and experts, we have created this 10-point plan, with an aim to help educators reimagine and strengthen systems. In particular, we encourage school and system leaders to consider how the needs of people of color and individuals with disabilities will be affected by re-entry. Many re-entry scenarios present a unique challenge to already vulnerable students and families, thereby compounding the equity implications of the pandemic. Using equitable and innovative re-entry approaches, we have an opportunity to design new solutions together that better meet the needs of all learners.

1. Organize and mobilize. Create a cross-functional team to manage programmatic, staffing, facilities, budget, and communication implications of reopening schools. Empower this team to prepare for re-entry, set and manage metrics that matter most in each domain, and ensure performance for:

  • maintaining health, wellness, and safety of the entire school community (e.g., PPE availability, compliance with distancing);

  • maximizing student learning and ability to thrive (e.g., access-gap reduction, academic growth);

  • supporting educators and staff to adapt and respond (e.g., family satisfaction); and

  • securing a strong financial and operational future (e.g., days of cash on hand).

Lindsay Jones, president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, urges planning teams to “take the steps needed to ensure that all students from all backgrounds can fully benefit” from what might be extended reliance on educational continuity plans.

The team charged with preparation for re-entry should solicit feedback from students, families, teachers, staff, and other stakeholders through a variety of channels, including virtual town halls, social media, and family surveys. This team also holds public accountability and communications responsibility and should coordinate plans with guidance from regional and state agencies.

2. Develop reopening scenarios. Most schools will be told when to reopen, based on regional public health risks, economic demand, and childcare needs. Schools will be responsible for putting structures in place to safeguard health and wellness and responding to student and family needs. Schools will also need to be ready to act if the virus resurges.

EdTrust CEO John King and AFT President Randi Weingarten urged funding for summer learning experiences. “We must help students catch up from lost learning time, which particularly affects our most vulnerable students. We must plan for the future of education in a way that makes good on our promise to provide every child in America with the tools needed to succeed, regardless of geography or demography.”

Reopening in the fall on the regular schedule might be the base case, but alternatives should be considered, including:

  • opening early to more quickly address learning gaps

  • opening early with safety precautions (as contemplated in California)

  • opening on time but ready to shift nimbly to remote learning in the event of resurgence;

  • opening on time but with time-shifted (learners on different schedules) and/or place-shifted approaches (some learners in temporary facilities and some learners remote to support distancing); or

  • opening later, given a resurgence.

Come fall, schools might have to toggle between on-site and remote learning, stagger attendance, or use a variety of strategies in response to resurgence. System heads with well-developed plans will have the opportunity to influence state reopening guidelines.

As the active ingredients for success with each reopening scenario are identified, Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, reminds us, “equity must be baked into the recipe for effective reopening—into the culture, structures, and into the daily practices.”

“It’s not enough to have one reopening plan, and simply hope that all groups of students will benefit equally,” says Greg Rodriguez, high school director at Brooklyn LAB. “Unless we are careful, intentional, flexible, and creative in our planning, re-entry will work much better for some students than for others.”

It will be critical to maintain flexibility to balance local needs (e.g., serving the children of nurses) with regional realities (e.g., closure of daycare providers for faculty members). Schools will be more effective if they prepare to reduce the friction of transitions.

3. Embrace financial stewardship in the face of uncertainty. Most schools and districts will see a decline in revenue for several years. Public schools must set principles for making hard choices, including how best to balance legal obligations (including maintaining the provision of free and appropriate education) under various resource scenarios. A dynamic and iterative scenario-planning process is required to navigate this unprecedented level of uncertainty.

Before cutting critical expenses, it’s essential to aggressively preserve revenue. Oliver Sicat, CEO of Ednovate, suggests that budgeting should strive for the optimal combination