Ending the Long Wait for Federal Guidance on Reopening Schools

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The Education Department’s COVID-19 guidance may signal a return to information sharing.

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The U.S. Department of Education describes itself as an “emergency response system” that fills gaps to provide states and local school districts with additional support when “critical national needs arise.” The COVID-19 pandemic triggered new critical needs for the entire world, yet it took almost a year and a new presidential administration for the Education Department to create substantive guidance on how to reopen schools. This delay left 50 percent of elementary and middle schools without guidance as they reopened for some form of in-person instruction.

In early February, shortly after President Joseph R. Biden’s inauguration, the Education Department released a COVID-19 handbook to help schools reopen safely. The swift delivery on overdue guidance from the Biden Administration may indicate that the current Department of Education will take a data-centered, information sharing approach to its role in shaping school management across the United States.

The Education Department issued the first volume in February, which outlines how schools should implement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance for school reopening. In April, the Education Department released a second volume to address inequalities that worsened during nationwide remote schooling. In June, the department issued the third volume, which provides guidance for higher education intuitions to “reopen for in-person instruction safely and equitably.”

The release of this multi-volume handbook ends the long wait for school leaders who have sought federal guidance on school reopening since the previous administration pushed for a return to in-person instruction. At the start of the pandemic, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos waived federal school testing requirements. Otherwise, the federal response to the COVID-19 crisis disappointed many K-12 school leaders.

Part of the Education Department’s mission includes “collecting data on America’s schools and disseminating research,” but last summer DeVos reportedly said she was unsure whether there was “a role at the department to collect and compile” school district reopening and coronavirus infection rates. DeVos suggested that schools compile the data using various state and county public health databases, reportedly saying merely that “the data is there for those who want it.”

Researchers and various school leader organizations, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, created their own COVID-19 school response dashboard to collect and circulate the data local school leaders hoped the federal government would provide.

DeVos revealed that she was not aware of or leading school coronavirus tracing efforts after she and former President Donald J. Trump had urged schools to reopen at the start of the fall 2020 school year, regardless of schools’ ability to meet the CDC’s recommendations. School leaders criticized the Trump Administration for pressuring schools to reopen without offering adequate direction on how to do so safely.

When the CDC issued guidelines aimed at school reopening, Trump criticized the CDC in a tweet, reportedly calling the agency’s guidelines “very tough,” “expensive,” and “impractical.” He concluded his tweet by saying, “I will be meeting with them!!!”

In another tweet, President Trump reportedly threatened to “cut off funding” to schools that did not reopen in fall 2020. School leaders called on the Education Department to provide data-based guidance based on the CDC recommendations such as a threshold for closing and reopening schools. Under the Trump Administration, the Education Department did not provide answers to these questions.

After months with no response, the Biden Administration is answering the call. In addition to the Education Department’s COVID-19 handbooks, in late April, the Department launched a new online clearinghouse of best practices for keeping schools safe. This clearinghouse provides resources—reviewed by government agencies—for schools, educators, and families to reopen schools for in-person instruction and to “support the needs of all students, particularly historically underserved students and those who have been impacted greatest by the pandemic.”

Under the Biden Administration, the Education Department has returned to fulfilling its original mandate. In 1979 Congress created the Education Department under the Department of Education Organization Act. Congress outlined seven purposes for the Education department, including “to promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information.”

Although the Education Department describes its mission as sustaining national dialogue aimed at improving schools and pursuing access and excellence through its national programs––states and local school districts control curricular choices, school operations, and most school funding. The Education Department does have the authority to enforce civil rights laws in schools that receive federal funds, but otherwise, the federal government plays a minor role in K-12 schools.

Given the narrow role of the federal government in K-12 education, providing data-informed guidance that would be too costly and inefficient for individual districts to acquire on their own is one of the Education Department’s primary functions.

As an agency in the presidential cabinet, the Education Department carries out its function often with great influence from the President—as indicated by the distinct COVID-19 responses from the Education Department under the Trump and Biden Administrations—even when that influence works against school leaders’ requests for support and the Education Department’s mission.

All schools are expected to reopen for in-person instruction in fall 2021, but now school leaders can do so with the benefit of research and data-based support.