Back to School: 10 Steps Schools and Districts Can Take to Address New and Ongoing COVID-19 Challenges
As much as school and district staff (and students and families, for that matter) would like to put COVID-19 behind them, new variants and surges in cases—and the potential for more as we head into fall—mean COVID-19 safety and student and staff well-being remain key priorities. As the pandemic-related landscape continues to evolve, schools and districts are encountering a range of new challenges as they work to best serve their students. Below are 10 of the most important COVID-19-related actions schools and districts can take this fall, based on LPI research and conversations with experts.
1. Determine and communicate COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Multilayered mitigation strategies have proven highly effective at keeping in-person instruction open and keeping students and staff safe, but use of many of these strategies has waned over time. The districts that are best prepared for continued fluctuations in local COVID-19 case rates will have predetermined which mitigation strategies to use under what conditions. This might include, for example, a plan to reinstate indoor mask mandates and/or ramp up screening testing when case rates reach the CDC’s “high” threshold. Well-prepared districts will also have materials and infrastructure in place to quickly implement changes to mitigation strategies and communicate them to stakeholders. Sharing information ahead of time about criteria for reevaluating or modifying district mitigation strategies can be especially helpful in building trust and preparing families and other district partners for possible shifts in policies and practices.
2. Create safer learning environments for immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable students. Students with compromised immune systems or other preexisting conditions that render them especially vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infection warrant particular precautions. This may include providing remote learning options and the necessary technology infrastructure (e.g., laptops, wireless hotspots); facilitating additional in-school mitigation measures, such as encouraging masking for students and staff and providing HEPA filters in affected classrooms; and reemphasizing public health guidance related to at-home testing and staying home when sick.
3. Identify students with long COVID and address their needs. Studies show that long COVID—in which patients have persistent symptoms 1 to 3 months or more after their initial COVID-19 infection—may be present for up to 25% of the more than 14 million U.S. children who have had COVID-19. Symptoms may include physical symptoms like fever, headache, sore throat, coughing, and chest pain, as well as fatigue, confusion, impaired concentration, processing and memory challenges, and other learning difficulties that may easily be mistaken for disengagement. Schools and districts can best serve affected students by educating teachers and other staff to recognize these symptoms; helping them to understand that long COVID is among the possible root causes of behavioral or engagement challenges (which can also be signs of trauma); and referring families to health care providers for further evaluation and support. Schools and districts can also train committees who create learning plans for students with disabilities to consider a range of accommodations that prioritize demands in school and otherwise conserve affected students’ energy. Demands on these committees may increase as they work to accommodate students with long COVID, so the responsibilities of affected staff members may need to be adjusted.
4. Provide opportunities for expanded learning and learning acceleration. Addressing unfinished learning brought about by the pandemic continues to be a profoundly important task for schools and districts. It is important to avoid remediation strategies that research has shown to undermine student achievement, such as downward tracking (i.e., sorting struggling students into cohorts, which can lead to inequitable education experiences) and grade retention. Instead, schools and districts should focus on research-validated strategies to accelerate learning, like expanding learning time via high-quality tutoring, after-school and summer programs, and using formative assessments with actionable student feedback.
It is important to avoid remediation strategies that research has shown to undermine student achievement, such as downward tracking (i.e., sorting struggling students into cohorts, which can lead to inequitable education experiences) and grade retention.
5. Support students’ health and wellness needs through social and emotional learning (SEL) and wraparound supports. Nationally, students’ mental health has profoundly deteriorated due to pandemic-related stressors. Many students are also experiencing the effects of financial instability brought on by the pandemic, including housing and food insecurity and exacerbations of non-COVID-19 health issues. Schools can assist students by establishing multi-tiered, integrated systems of support; providing access to comprehensive wraparound services that support mental and physical health and well-being and that provide food and other resources; and integrating SEL throughout the school day. SEL tools and supports can range from mindfulness and centering strategies to classroom meetings to strategies for coping with difficult emotions or challenging situations. These strategies can be introduced in settings like morning meetings in elementary schools or advisory classes in secondary schools and then reinforced in other classes in contextually appropriate ways. Ensuring these SEL tools and supports are available as part of a student’s everyday school experience—and not just when behavioral issues arise—is especially important in building students’ resilience.
6. Acknowledge and support students who have lost family members or caregivers as a result of COVID-19. Grieving doesn’t stop when students walk onto campus. As part of their effort to create supportive and caring communities, school leaders should strive to acknowledge and support the young people who are grieving the loss of a parent, caregiver, or other close family member as a result of COVID-19. Ensuring these students have close, positive adult relationships at school will be key to their well-being and academic success. Other specific supports might include mentoring, counseling, or referrals to programs like peer or other grief support groups. Given the disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths in many communities of color, this is an important equity issue.
7. Acknowledge and address emotional trauma and burnout among school staff. Teacher and other education staffing shortages have accelerated rapidly across the United States since the pandemic began. Many teachers attribute this to particular challenges of teaching in the COVID-19 era. These include navigating distance learning; addressing unfinished student learning and student stress; balancing demands at home—including, in some cases, grieving the loss of family members to COVID-19; and taking on extra responsibilities due to staff shortages. School and district leaders should identify strategies to support their teacher and broader staff workforce. This may include increasing pay or other forms of compensation (such as one-time bonuses for additional COVID-19-related work and stress), ensuring adequate sick leave, allowing for mental health days, providing and promoting access to Employee Assistance Programs or other forms of counseling, and increasing opportunities for community-building and collaboration.
8. Serve as a trusted information source for the surrounding community. Schools have a vital role to play as trusted purveyors of COVID-19-related information for families and community members. This is especially true in communities of color and low-income communities, where access to reliable information may be more limited and where racist and traumatic practices may have seeded distrust in other institutions, particularly related to health care. Responding to this need, schools can widely share relevant information, such as how to access tests and vaccines, and what to do in case of a COVID-19 exposure or a positive test.
9. Partner with local public health officials to support continued testing and vaccination campaigns. Over the past 2 years, many districts have collaborated closely with local public health officials on initiatives like vaccine clinics and surveillance, screening, and diagnostic testing. Whether by hosting these services on school grounds or distributing relevant information to members of the school and community, schools and districts can play crucial roles in ensuring continued access to these critical services. With pediatric vaccine uptake lagging behind overall vaccination rates across the United States (especially for the youngest students), schools and districts can be particularly impactful in disseminating information about vaccine safety and efficacy.
10. Make strategic use of federal COVID-19 recovery funds. Federal funds for COVID-19 recovery present a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity for districts to help pay for a wide range of COVID-19-related priorities, including those discussed here. One additional important use of federal COVID-19 recovery funds is for updating school building ventilation infrastructure. Such updates both protect against the spread of COVID-19 and confer many additional benefits.
Taking these important steps will require attention and effort from school and district leaders at a time when most are already stretched thin. Still, each of these areas is well worth investing in now. COVID-19 will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. Its immediate and downstream effects on students’ physical health, social and emotional wellness, and academic attainment will compound over time if not addressed promptly and thoroughly.