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Let’s Reopen Schools — But Safely, Say Educators

Without adequate funding and the political will from lawmakers, safety measures won’t be met and lives will be put at risk.
reopening school safely
Published: 02/02/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. At least 30 public school employees in Alabama have died as a result of COVID-19, forcing one large school district to return to virtual learning.
  2. The issue for educators across the country has always been how in-person instruction can be done safely and equitably.
  3. NEA is calling on federal and state authorities to make vaccines and the resources for mitigating measures broadly and equitably available to school districts and institutions of higher education.

Four Montgomery, Alabama educators died within 48 hours of each other in the state that leads the country in new COVID-19 cases. After 39 public school educators had already died of COVID-19, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) urged the state to vaccinate school staff as soon as possible.

They were successful. Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris announced last week that he would prioritize education employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by moving education employees up the list and allowing them to receive a vaccine beginning February 8.  

 “Today represents a turning point in the battle against COVID-19 in Alabama schools.  On behalf of every educator, I want to thank Dr. Harris for seeing how essential it is to protect those who serve our students,” said  AEA President Sherry Tucker. “His bold action will speed up the process of returning to full-time in-person instruction, bringing significant relief to parents and economic recovery to our state.”   

The four recent deaths occurred in the Montgomery Public School system (MPS), which returned to remote learning following an announcement last week by MPS Superintendent Ann Roy Moore.  

During a news conference Moore said the system will resume in-person instruction when school employees are able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Around the country, reopening school and campus buildings has turned political and some people are turning on educators and putting the blame on them, despite the risks – and possible loss of life – they face. This division is exactly what some policy makers seem to want.

Educators have consistently been saying it’s not about if schools return to in-person instruction but how in-person instruction can be done safely and equitably. They point to strategies like improving ventilation, frequently testing students and staff for COVID-19, and making sure educators can get vaccinated. Without adequate funding and political will, however, safety measures won’t be met and will put lives at risk, like those in Alabama and other places where school employees are currently working with students in school buildings but where the level of safety is in question.  

“While time out of the classroom is difficult... lives cannot be brought back when they are lost,” says Tucker. 

Where NEA Stands  

The National Education Association (NEA) is clear about what is required for safe schools:

"Making safe in-person instruction a reality requires federal mandates and resources that compel and allow school districts and institutions of higher education to put in place the mitigating measures necessary to protect against COVID-19. The two most promising developments in the battle against COVID-19—vaccines and rapid COVID-19 tests—can be game changers for safe in-person instruction, and federal and state authorities should make them broadly and equitably available. Both must be accompanied by the robust COVID-19 mitigation strategies that the CDC knows must be in place as a starting point for schools to be safe. The National Education Association strongly stands behind educators who have determined that they need access to COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that their workplaces are safer, whether they are currently working in person or will be returning to school buildings, and educators need to have access to COVID-19 vaccines now, period."

The urgency to resume in-person instruction is real and educators, many of whom are parents themselves, are intimately aware of how students are suffering emotionally and academically where they are distance learning. They know about the rising rates of depression and anxiety, about truancy and drop-out rates and the heavy costs on lives and communities. That’s why they are pleading with lawmakers to finally provide relief funding so that more educators can get back to in-person instruction as safely as possible as soon as possible.  

NEA is part of the National Labor Management Partnership, a coalition of groups concerned about the welfare of America’s students and families. It also includes the American Federation of Teachers; AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the National School Boards Association; and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They recommend a COVID-19 task force to oversee and support working groups, keep the community informed, advocate for funding, coordinate budgets and seek more resources as needed so that schools can reopen safely.  

The process should ensure school districts develop effective building reopening plans that include all school employees at the decision-making table, navigate the workforce implications of COVID-19 such as ensuring the necessary staff are on the payroll (like nurses) as well as the need for substitutes when staff isolate or quarantine, and map out ways to ensure COVID-19 plans and actions integrate attention to racial and social equity.   

 There are also more technical issues to be addressed, like school ventilation systems, disinfecting plans that don’t overly rely on dangerous chemicals, and carrying out COVID-19 testing at the school level , contract tracing in schools, and vaccination plans.  

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that school-related transmission can still pose serious risks,” says NEA president Becky Pringle.  “Truly, no one wants to get back to in-person instruction more than educators – but we must do so safely.”   

If parents, educators, administrators and the community work together – like in Wisconsin where the CDC showed that schools can be safer – we could reopen more schools more quickly.  

Last month the CDC released findings from a study that monitored 17 schools in rural Wisconsin from Aug. 31 to Nov. 29, prior to the holiday spikes in cases experienced nationwide.  Of the 191 cases of COVID-19 identified in students and staff members at the schools during that period 3.7 percent were linked to in-school spread.  

"These findings suggest that, with proper mitigation strategies, K-12 schools might be capable of opening for in-person learning with minimal in-school transmission of SARS-CoV-2," the researchers wrote.   

First, the schools received a sizable grant from a local community group called the Legacy Foundation of Central Wisconsin. Second, all students and staff had to wear masks at all times and outdoors if they were within six feet of each other. Compliance was 92 percent or higher during the study. Third, class sizes were small and spacing was possible. Fourth, buildings were well ventilated.  

Ron “Duff” Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council pointed out that this isn't happening in every district, especially in areas where schools have large class sizes and over-crowding within school buildings or if the buildings have inadequate ventilation. High-occupancy areas, like crowded schools, show widespread transmission. That is what the science says, not opinion.  

Scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, also say that school employees must be vaccinated as soon as possible to open school buildings.  

Wisconsin's Wausau Education Association President John Masanz has also asked that teachers be fully vaccinated before all students be brought back in.  

Vaccinations alone are not a silver bullet, but with the proper safety protocols called for by the CDC, they can prevent transmission and save lives.  

"We welcome [students] back with open arms — we always have — and we look forward to that day,” Masanz says. “The WEA simply requests the safety of all personnel be put above the politics." 

NEA provides guidance and resources for returning to classrooms safely, and with an emphasis on racial and social justice.

NEA on In-Person Learning

“To minimize exposure or infection from COVID-19, we must ensure that all students and educators have continuously funded access to PPE and other disinfecting supplies.”
See NEA’s guidance on reopening school buildings

NEA on Access to Vaccines

“NEA is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local governments to prioritize educators for early access to COVID-19 vaccines.”
See NEA's statement on the COVID-19 vaccine
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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.