Fauci says ensuring student and staff safety before reopening schools is a ‘moral imperative’

Questioned about what it will take to safely reopen businesses and schools to jump-start the American economy, Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned on May 12 that “consequences could be really serious” if states move too quickly to return to business as usual.

Asked by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) whether school administrators could feel safe welcoming students back to campus in the fall, Fauci explained that widespread, readily available testing should be in place so that students and school staff could be adequately screened.

The hearing, “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School,” highlighted the need for additional state and federal support to allow local educational agencies to safely welcome children back to campus.

Fauci, virtually flanked by Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration; Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, emphasized the need to continue social distancing practices and further promote the use of personal protective equipment such as masks or other face coverings in public settings.

Acknowledging that extended school closures will lead to learning loss among students and leave some children throughout the country in unsafe home environments or without enough food to eat, Fauci told senators that there is no easy or universal answer when it comes to developing a timeline for reopening schools.

There is, however, a “moral imperative” to ensure essential workers, including teachers and other school staff, have the resources they need to safely serve their communities, he said — especially with a vaccine for COVID-19 still realistically at least a year away.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond have said that when schools return, it will have to be with measures in place that allow for physical distancing and regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces. For districts, this will likely mean staggered schedules that allow for smaller groups in classrooms, cafeterias and gyms, as well as blended learning models that allow students to learn from home some days and attend class in-person other days.

“There are many significant changes that will need to be made to school systems to ensure the safety of students and staff in schools, and with education budgets already stretched thin as a result of COVID-19, districts need support at the state and federal levels,” said California School Boards Association CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “There needs to be a commitment from state and federal leaders to provide the resources and funding necessary to provide learning opportunities in the safest possible environments.”

While educators are eager to welcome students back to campus, school board members understand that returning to “normal” cannot jeopardize the safety of students, and that when schools do reopen, that decision must be based on what makes sense for students academically and from a health perspective.

CSBA is working with state lawmakers and the Governor’s office to ensure that several conditions are met before resuming on-campus classes statewide. Among those:

  • Testing is widespread and accessible to all Californians
  • The state does not cut school funding, but increases funding to pay for current year and budget year (2021) COVID-19 related costs
  • The state provides clear guidelines on what social distancing means in a school setting and, working with local school boards and superintendents, determines that implementation is plausible
  • The state provides funding and support for the actual costs and support needed to effectively implement social distancing measures on campus
  • The state leads schools in obtaining and supplying the personal protective equipment needed for the safety of students, staff and community
  • The state makes additional progress in providing access to technology such as broadband internet and computers that will be needed to resume school under a cohort/staggered/hybrid model
  • The state has a plan in place and commitment to not cut school funding if a second wave of the pandemic forces the temporary closure of schools or a full-time return to distance learning

Find more information about CSBA’s advocacy efforts.