Schools must enact structured, science-based plans to ensure the safety of their students and avoid opening prematurely, warn health advocates from across the country.

Last week, the Coalition for Healthier Schools and the New Jersey Work Environment Council released a “National Call to Action: The Pandemic v. Schools,” which provides public health-informed plans that schools can adopt and tailor to help them safely reopen their physical doors.

It covers a range of issues, including recommendations on improving indoor air quality, sanitation practices and how to implement adequate physical distancing. 

“The actions we recommend in this report are informed by science and comprise research and input from public health experts, school advocates, worker representatives and more,” said Debra Coyle McFadden, executive director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, during a news conference announcing the report’s release. 

McFadden said the report was issued, in part, due to a lack of strong federal guidance that is leaving school staff and students at risk.

“As a parent, I should not be put in the position of having to choose between my child's health or attending school,” she said. “And a worker should not have to choose between their health and a paycheck.”

Like so many of COVID-19’s effects, its impact on students is likely to disproportionately harm students of color and those from low-income households. 

“We are acutely aware that it is the Black, Latinx, Native American, poor children and frontline-working families that will continue to face disproportionate consequences of the pandemic,” said APHA member Claire Barnett, MBA, founder and executive director of the New York-based Healthy Schools Network and coordinator of the Coalition for Healthier Schools.

“In fact, the poorest communities hardest hit by COVID-19 will send their children to the poorest schools in the worst physical condition that have very few resources for a quick turnaround to improve building systems.”

Less wealthy schools may lack another component crucial to fighting COVID-19: school nurses. Out of about 130,000 schools in the U.S., 30,000, have no school nurse.

“School health services are a student and family equity issue,” said Laurie Combe, MN, RN, president of the National Association of School Nurses, during the news conference. “School nurses are often the only health care provider to which students have regular access.” 

School closures and the loss of services that schools provide have particularly impacted students with disabilities. But while in-person schooling is important, reopening must not happen at the cost of students’ safety, cautioned Cindy Cipoletti, JD, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. 

“Students with disabilities have been among the most harmed by school closures and learning loss,” she said.  

Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of APHA, said that while closed school campuses certainly stress the economy, communities stand to face even greater pains and economic losses if children do not return to school campuses in a safe way. He also emphasized the need for action in communities — and not just in schools — to prevent the virus’ spread. 

“No one will be safe if we don't address infections in the broader community,” he said during last week’s news conference. “We've got to step up our disease control efforts nationwide with adequate testing, contact tracing and the use of the non-pharmacological interventions that we know work, such as face masking, hand-washing and physical distancing.” 

Download a copy of the new “National Call to Action: The Pandemic v. Schools” here. For more resources on schools and COVID-19, visit APHA