School districts in the United States are in a period of profound uncertainty, which will likely persist throughout the 2020–2021 school year. Many agree that remote teaching in spring 2020 was piecemeal and sub-optimal. Now, despite a stated universal commitment to full-time, in-person, high-caliber education, many states have rising rates of COVID-19, and teachers and parents share deep health concerns. Already we have witnessed a rapid and seismic transition from the beginning of this summer — in June, many schools planned to open full-time for in-person learning — to near-universal adoption of hybrid or remote teaching models. In fact, as of August 26th, 24 of the 25 largest school districts in the US will start their school year providing remote-only education.

Seeking perspective on a safe return to school

I began the summer thinking that I could contribute in some small way to fusing together basic public health and educational principles toward a safe return to school. I teach a course at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on big public health campaigns. My daughter, an urban education scholar, lectures in my class on the value of parent-teacher collaboration. As a grandparent of three little boys ages 7, 4, and 3, and as a parent and father-in-law of two children and their spouses facing extraordinarily difficult decisions concerning school and day care, I am personally invested.

A colleague from a large social service agency shared a story of parents working in the hospitality industry. They face having to leave children, ages 6 and 8, home alone during the day trying to learn remotely. My own story — working years ago as a day care worker and unionized steelworker — affords me a sense of kinship with teachers. And during the past three months, while writing guidelines for school superintendents in Massachusetts and nationally, I’ve talked with parents of school-age children, school nurses, and superintendents navigating the raging debate over a safe return to school. The view differs depending on where you stand, but I have distilled some lessons.

Five takeaways: Steps and missteps in return to school

Sleepless nights, anxiety, and collaboration. In all of my conversations, whether it was with a school leader, a parent, a grandparent, or a school nurse, people shared the same stories of a succession of sleepless nights, coupled with the most difficult decision they have made in their personal and professional lives. Parents, in particular, speak of their anxiety, panic, exhaustion, powerlessness, and lack of support in trying to come up with a reasonable strategy for their children. At the same time, the potential for collaboration abounds. Parents and teachers are natural allies. They can jointly advocate for federal and state resources to ensure that our nation’s children can ultimately return to safe schools.

Lack of metrics. School superintendents, for whom I have come to have immense respect, have received little guidance on metrics to use as they decide to open schools now or close them later. They will need data on the number of cases in their community, trends over time, and the positive test rates for their areas and the areas closest to their districts. Parents are also looking for complete transparency as districts review community metrics to make closing or reopening decisions. There will be successful school openings and challenging ones. All interested parties need a forum to share their stories with one another.

Tutors, mentors, and collective space. Providing computers and hotspots is important to children and families who need them, although we also need to keep in mind that some families clearly have no internet access. Many families will need tutors, mentors, facilitators, and collective space to be skillfully educated in a remote setting. Low-income communities should be funded to promote and create community learning hubs that will be required for the millions of children who will not be educated in classrooms.

Masks and fabric face coverings. Mask wearing, dubbed the “interim vaccine,” must be the cornerstone of a national plan to reduce transmission in school settings and collective spaces. How can we reinforce mask wearing? For parents, teachers, and day care providers alike, the clock starts now as we vigilantly practice mask wearing before and after in-person schooling starts, then maintain this practice through the school year. School leaders, parents, and teachers can work together on crafting signage that reinforces the social norm of mask wearing in schools and on school buses, and incentivizing children for doing so.

Openness to evolving science and wisdom beyond our borders. Most importantly, we should all be humble about the limits of knowledge in the early stages of a pandemic, and expect changes as scientific understanding evolves. Initially, many experts believed that children did not get and did not transmit the virus. There was little basis to say this, as nearly every school in the US had shut down by no later than March 17th. We can look elsewhere for models, but schools in Europe started outdoors and never had more than 15 kids per class. If it were not for the surge that hit a large swath of the country in late June, we may have careened tragically toward full, in-person reopenings, with 25 children in a class and 66 children on a school bus. Recently, as schools opened in the US and abroad, we have been inundated with reports of cases diagnosed among students and teachers. However, basic public health principles of social distancing, mask wearing, and handwashing can prevail if consistently applied.

Schools cannot open safely if there are high rates of community transmission. School reopenings must take precedence over the opening of bars, indoor restaurants, and large indoor social gatherings. We all have a collective responsibility and social compact with one another to strive for a healthy and full return to school for our nation’s students and teachers.

For further discussion of return-to-school issues, listen to our “Living Better, Living Longer” podcast with Alan Geller, “Back to School: It’s Never Been More Complicated.”

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