On February 12, 2021, the Department of Education (“the Department”) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) released guidance to support school and district leaders and educators to safely reopen elementary and secondary schools. The guidance focuses on how schools can consistently implement mitigation strategies during all school-related activities to successfully reopen schools and keep them open. To support this strategy, the Department released the COVID-19 Handbook (“the Handbook”), which is being released in two volumes, provides strategies to keep schools open and identifies ways to promote equity for communities of color and people with disabilities/chronic conditions who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Volume One of the Handbook

The first volume supplements the CDC’s Operation Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation, and provides examples and roadmaps to provide educators and staff with some of the tools to implement safe practices for in-person learning. Some of the highlights include:

Masking Practices

The Handbook provides strategies to promote the universal and correct use of masks in schools by utilizing signage and school announcements to remind students and staff how to use masks. Additionally, the Handbook guides educators through working with students with disabilities who are unable to wear a mask, for safety reasons, consistent with CDC guidelines.

Physical Distancing Practices

The Handbook details a variety of practical ways that educators and schools can practice physical distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including:

  • Grouping students into a pod that stays together all day with their core teacher (and any aide or student teacher who is present), including for lunch and recess;
  • Using cafeterias and auditoriums for classes;
  • Staggering the use of communal spaces and reconfiguring bell schedules to minimize foot traffic; and
  • For transportation to school, seating one student per row and assigning each transportee to a designated seat that is the same every day.

Roadmap for Stakeholder Engagement

The Department acknowledged that a successful school reopening strategy requires engaging the entire school community to support a safe learning environment; therefore, the Handbook also lays out a roadmap for who should be at the negotiating table and suggests ways that school leaders and educators can conduct individual outreach activities and use surveys and virtual town halls to engage the communities in an effort to reopen schools.

 Volume Two of the Handbook

 The second volume of the Handbook, which will be released in the next few weeks, will provide specific strategies to address the disruption created by COVID-19 for students, educators, and parents – with a focus on underserved students and communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. The strategies will be tailored around the following topics:

  • Meeting the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students;
  • Supporting educator and school staff well-being;
  • Addressing lost instructional time for students;
  • Stabilizing a diverse and qualified educator workforce;
  • Ensuring equitable access to broadband and the devices needed to participate in remote learning;
  • Supporting the effective use of technology for in-person learning and periodic shifts to remote learning;
  • Providing school nutrition, regardless of the educational setting;
  • Providing all students with access to a safe and inclusive learning environment;
  • Extending learning time;
  • Addressing resource inequities to provide all students with the educational opportunities they need to succeed, including access to a well-rounded education (including advanced courses, music, and the arts), quality educators, and integrated student support services; and
  • Using data to inform students, parents, and educators of progress and areas requiring additional support.

What this Means to You

While the Handbook provides guidance for schools seeking to reopen safely, these efforts will require a thorough analysis of existing policies and procedures. If you have concerns about your policies or practices in light of this guidance, contact John Borkowski, Aleks Rushing, Skye Parr, Catarina Colón or your Husch Blackwell education attorney.