National leaders have failed schools on COVID tests and opening safely. We're on our own.
Where are our fast and frequent tests? Where's the national data on what prevents transmission in schools? There's been a complete absence of support.
The fall coronavirus surge has arrived, and with it another wave of school closures. As a physician and local school board president, I have heard from parents who desperately want schools open regardless of community rates of COVID-19, and parents who are terrified of the disease infecting their households. I’ve seen teachers working hard to adapt to the times when education as we knew it before is just not possible. And it feels like we are back to where we were in August, making very tough decisions about how to open and stay open.
Amid a huge surge in COVID-19, staying open is the greatest challenge facing local school leaders today. What makes the challenge even more difficult is the complete absence of any national leadership or policy to support schools. Nearly all decisions have been punted to local leaders with little guidance, limited funding and grossly inadequate access to testing.
Inexcusable shortage of COVID testing
Last spring, I was convinced that by the fall, our nation would have addressed many of the issues that are now causing schools to close again. Let’s start with access to testing.
Professional sports leagues have managed to “stay open.” How have they done it? Teams have access to regular and frequent testing — not just when a player gets sick, but every week as routine surveillance. In many cases, it has allowed teams to stamp out outbreaks.
In my school district and many others, not only do we not have access to any surveillance testing, we must often wait days for test results of students who are symptomatic or had an exposure.
As we saw in the outbreak in the White House, testing is not a magical solution that can allow us to let our guard down. Even so, it would go a long way to keeping COVID-19 out of schools and preventing building closures. In September, we heard that the White House had bought 150 million rapid testing kits that would be made available to schools.We are now in early December facing a huge national surge and we still do not have testing kits. This is inexcusable nine months into the pandemic.
School districts have also been left on their own to determine the mitigation measures needed to reopen. Since August, schools across the country have reopened with different rates of COVID-19 in their communities and different mitigation measures in place in their school buildings. The federal government could have been leading a national effort to collect data on the mitigation measures to learn what works in schools to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Yet here we are in December with little to no such data, and thus the strategy for us and other nearby districts has been to do everything, regardless of the cost or operational challenges.
In short, it's a mess: upgrades to ventilation systems and purchase personal protective equipment. Schools have rented tents, bought new technology and adapted special education staffing to address hybrid and virtual education. The list goes on and on.
Federal dollars have not come close to covering these expenses. States are managing their own deficits and unable to help. In my district, near Philadelphia, we are lucky to have some financial reserves to cover these costs, but these disappearing resources were intended to provide longer-term financial stability. This short-term surge in costs has compromised the future for my district and most others. As Congress considers additional stimulus and recovery investments, K-12 schools need to be at the top of the list — to keep schools open and create an opportunity for a meaningful post-COVID recovery.
Spend money, and fast: Dr. David Grande is director of policy at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and school board president at the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter: @DaveGrande