The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said Wednesday school districts “should prioritize” reopening schools, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs, but federal and state government must provide “substantial” new funding to school districts to help.

Weighing in on the national debate about if and how school districts should reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, the academies issued guidance aimed helping them assess the best evidence related to covid-19 and to provide best practices for how to maintain the health of those going into school buildings.

Written by the academies’ Committee on Guidance for K-12 Education on Responding to COVID-19, the guidance says there is no way to “entirely eliminate the risk” that covid-19 will spread. It says mitigation efforts can be effective but warns entrenched economic and social inequities could be made worse if reopening is done without adequate safeguards.

It also says there could be serious consequences for children if they do not return to the classroom after spending the last several months of the 2019-20 school year home when their schools closed because of the pandemic.

“The risks of not having face-to-face learning are especially high for young children, who may suffer long-term consequences academically if they fall behind in the early grades,” and for students with special needs, the report says. It also says the “collective trauma of the pandemic should not be underestimated.”

“Particularly in the communities hardest hit by covid-19, children may have experienced the extreme illness or death of multiple close family members even as their families and communities are facing the stress of serious economic setbacks,” the report said. “While it was beyond the scope of the committee’s charge to specify how schools should help students and families cope with this trauma, we stress the importance of making this kind of supportive response a priority. These efforts will need to include school counselors and other specialized staff as well as teachers.”

The guidance is the latest in a string of similar documents issued by health and education organizations and includes some of the same recommendations in others, including the importance of protective measures to mitigate the spread of the disease. The academies are nongovernment organizations that provide independent expert advice on science and related issues to help inform public policy and debate.

President Trump has called on schools to open fully for the fall, even though some districts have already said they do not have the funding to do so with any confidence, with covid-19 infections rates spiking in their areas and nationally. Those include the school districts in Los Angeles, San Diego and Atlanta.

Among recommendations, the report says schools and districts should:

  • Provide surgical masks for all teachers and staff. All students and staff should wear face masks. Younger children may have difficulty using face masks, but schools should encourage compliance.
  • Provide hand washing stations or hand sanitizer for all people who enter school buildings, minimize contact with shared surfaces and increase regular surface cleaning.
  • Limit large gatherings of students, such as during assemblies, in the cafeteria and overcrowding at school entrances, possibly by staggering arrival times.
  • Change classrooms to enable physical distancing, such as by limiting class sizes or moving instruction to larger spaces. One promising strategy, it says, is grouping together 10 students or less in one place and keeping the same staff there throughout the school day.
  • Prioritize cleaning, ventilation and air filtration

The report stresses the importance of ensuring equity in reopening schools, saying “persistent inequities of the education system might interact with similar disparities in health outcomes and access in ways that could devastate some communities more than others.”

“Every choice facing states, districts, and schools is being made against the backdrop of entrenched economic and social inequities made more visible by the disparate impacts of the pandemic on Black, LatinX and Indigenous communities,” it says. Without careful attention, plans to reopen schools could exacerbate these inequities.”

The guidance also says federal and state governments should “provide significant resources to districts and schools to enable them to implement the suite of measures required to maintain individual and community health and allow schools to remain open.”

“Under-resourced districts with aging facilities in poor condition will need additional financial support to bring facilities to basic health and safety standards,” it says, adding the U.S. Department of Education should not penalize schools by withholding statewide school formula funding for students who are absence during the pandemic, a routine practice before covid-19.

School district education leaders need help to assess risk and make plans from public health officials, it says, and the guidance calls for partnerships that will help superintendents create and implement reopening plans.

Because there is no way to eliminate the risk that covid-19 will spread inside a school, even with safety measures in place, “it is incumbent on school officials, in association with local public health authorities, to plan for the possibility that one or more students, teachers or staff will contract covid-19.”

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Here is the summary of the report: