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Urgent action by states, fed needed to clarify school reopening decisions

Schools around the country are shuttered again this fall as school systems continue to face chaotic conditions as result of the pandemic. As many students begin the school year remotely, families are eager for answers to the question of when schools will open for in-person instruction. 

There are no easy answers to this question, of course. But transparent, evidence-based guidelines can go a long way toward ensuring that school reopening doesn’t become mired in local politics or the victim of indecision. 

As part of our ongoing analysis of state reopening plans, we reviewed state guidelines for how school districts should approach the shift back to in-person instruction given evolving health conditions. 

The results shocked us: 23 states plus the District of Columbia provide no clear public health criteria to guide reopening decisions. The majority of these cases simply defer to local districts to identify when conditions will allow for in-person instruction. Four states without public health criteria for reopening— Arkansas, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas—even require schools to offer in-person instruction regardless of public health conditions.  

It may be that districts are, in that vacuum, turning to local health officials. But silence from states jeopardizes the safe and timely reopening of public schools and opens the door to local decisions shaped by politics, not public health.

Half of all states fail to provide clear guidance around when it is safe to reopen schools

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