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What Will Be the Effects of Reopening Schools?

Kids coloring while wearing masks in school

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Key Takeaways

  • The CDC has issued new guidance for the reopening of schools, but national reopening hasn't been mandated.
  • Schools are fully open in some districts, while others have adopted a hybrid model and others are still closed.
  • Following all safety measures will help prevent future outbreaks in schools, which could lead to further closures.

The majority of U.S. K-12 schools have been closed for many months now as part of the effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. But as vaccines are rolled out across the country and some restrictions are eased, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidance for the reopening of schools.

CDC Guidelines

While the CDC doesn’t go as far as mandating schools to open, its recommended mitigation strategies—including universal mask-wearing and physical distancing—are designed to get kids back in the classroom without causing future COVID-19 outbreaks. The guidelines also highlight the need for deep cleaning of facilities, personal hygiene, and contact tracing.

The agency said there is strong evidence that schools can now reopen, especially at lower grade levels. But it’s only going to go smoothly if there’s a high level of commitment from everybody involved, public health experts warn.

“As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,’” says Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of social distancing brand Give Space. Winner says if districts are confident that they can accurately assess their community risk response, put in the time required to prepare the facilities, train teachers and staff, and communicate effectively with families, then they’re in a good position to reopen schools safely. 

Carol Winner, MPH

In any public health initiative, good planning leads to great implementation and it results in successful sustainability. Maintaining success and avoiding failure is essential with COVID-19.

— Carol Winner, MPH

“In any public health initiative, good planning leads to great implementation and it results in successful sustainability,” Winner explains. “Maintaining success and avoiding failure is essential with COVID-19, as school and community outbreaks results in increased morbidity and mortality.”   

Although the CDC says school reopenings shouldn’t be conditional on teachers’ access to COVID-19 vaccines, it strongly recommends that US states prioritize teachers and school staff for vaccination. 

Every State Is Different 

Across the country, schools are adopting a wide range of reopening strategies to get children back to school. Some states have ordered opening, while others have no order in effect, meaning it's up to each school district what action to take. In other states, schools are still closed, or only partially open. 

In Michigan, where 28-year-old Briana Marie lives with her two kids, local school districts have the final say. 

“I’m comfortable with schools reopening, but I think a hybrid approach is more favorable in cases where school buildings cannot accommodate a six-foot distance between children in full classrooms,” Briana Marie says. “I think our district rushed back into a full time format too soon—I just don’t think the schools were prepared to welcome large numbers of students back into the building at one time.”

Karen Aronian, EdD

The sooner we get our nation's kids back to five-day brick-and-mortar, the sooner families and our nation can rebuild.

— Karen Aronian, EdD

In New York, schools can remain open provided the in-school positivity rate for COVID-19 remains lower than 9%. “Children can't wait to be back in school full-time,” says mom and teacher Karen Aronian, EdD. “They miss their friends, routines, learning environments, and the fluid socialization that doesn't happen by chance in homeschool hallways. The sooner we get our nation's kids back to five-day brick-and-mortar, the sooner families and our nation can rebuild.” 

Briana Marie agrees that kids will benefit from being back in school. “My children are absolutely thrilled to be back in school full time,” she says. “They really missed their friends and that sense of normalcy. Of course, they are not fans of wearing their face masks all day! But they would rather wear their masks all day than return to a virtual learning environment.” 

Kindergarten teacher Holly Winter Huppert says the whole pandemic has been an enormous challenge for teachers, parents, and schools. And although she’s witnessed parents being “frantic with worry” about what their children were missing by not being at school, they’re divided about the return to school. 

“Currently my school is on a hybrid schedule where students come to school two days a week or learn remotely the whole week,” Winter Huppert explains. “All students who want to will come to school five days a week starting after spring break. We have to split most classrooms to two locations so we can maintain the social distance requirements of six feet for all students at all times—even three-year-olds.” 

But the biggest obstacle for Winter Huppert is wiping off every work a child touches before another child uses that work. “This means that we have one adult who is disinfecting work all day, which is a drain on the educating we need to be doing,” she says.

Your Kids Are Going Back to School—Now What? 

If your kids are returning to school soon, you’re probably experiencing a mixture of emotions: relief, uncertainty, and anxiety. 

Winner’s advice is to never underestimate the strength of your voice and prowess in ensuring the health and safety of your children and their teachers and school staff. “The first priority is preparing our children to return to in-classroom learning, such as wearing a mask all day, washing hands, and social distancing with classmates,” Winner says. “The next level of priority is ensuring the success of reopening by supporting the school and the community.” 

Practicing healthy behaviors at home not only sets an example for our children but helps to reduce positivity rates in our communities,” Winner says.

“Skipping the spring break vacation by putting that energy toward helping the school can be rewarding, reduce community risk, and help to ensure back-to-school success. An enhanced level of collaboration between schools and their communities is a winning combination and something very positive that can come from this incredibly challenging year of 2020.”

What This Means For You

To ensure reopening is done in a safe way, your school will let you know what it expects of you and your child. If you have any questions or concerns, contact your school administrator directly.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schools and child care programs​. Updated March 12, 2021.