August 18, 2020 / Mark Ames

Reopening America’s Schools Together

Should schools reopen in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic? It seems that the question should have a straightforward answer, yet it’s debated across the nation, making occupational health and safety part of dinner table conversation. Within my own family, I’ve discussed the topic with my sister, who has two children; with my mother, who works in the principal’s office of my hometown high school; and with my wife’s cousins, who teach in Mississippi.

This is a personal, intimate subject, at the center of which occupational health and safety professionals find themselves. But it’s also one that AIHA is prepared for. AIHA recently released four Back to Work Safely guidelines that are applicable to schools:

Each of these documents provides clear, succinct, targeted recommendations for parents, guardians, and caregivers, school leaders, other school personnel, and students to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19. These documents are referred to in state reopening plans and distributed by OSHA, among other organizations. And in addition to those listed above, there are more than 20 industry-specific Back to Work Safely guidance documents on AIHA’s website, which have collectively been downloaded more than 1 million times. They are an amazing example of AIHA’s volunteers rising to the call of a nation in need.

Looking for advice on whether schools may safely reopen for in-person instruction, parents, students, and school personnel often turn as well to CDC, which recently released new guidance for schools. The guidance emphasizes the many benefits of in-person instruction, including providing children with routines; specialized support for English language learners and special education students; improved social, emotional, and mental health; and employment opportunities for school personnel.

However, CDC also emphasizes that the decision to return to school should be made in coordination with local public health officials, and warns that new cases of COVID-19 should be expected as schools resume in-person instruction. These messages combined have caused a tremendous amount of uncertainty, confusion, fear, and pushback. For instance, concerned about the health and safety of students, families, and school personnel, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit against an order by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to reopen schools for in-person learning.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million educators, didn’t mince words in a recent press release, illustrating the heightened emotions and high stakes related to reopening schools during the pandemic. “The bottom line is that we still haven’t contained community spread,” she said. “We don’t have the necessary safeguards. And we don’t have the resources to fix either. That’s why more and more schools are opening remotely.”

Elsewhere, groups of parents and students have voiced strong support for resuming in-person instruction, arguing that the benefits extolled by CDC outweigh the risks of contracting or spreading COVID-19.

How can we resolve this tension? How can we help students, teachers, and parents return to school and work safely? AIHA’s answer is to help them assess, understand, and reduce their risks by promoting AIHA’s Back to Work Safely guidance documents for schools and other settings. Please join us in encouraging schools, businesses, education associations, other nonprofits, and government agencies to reference AIHA’s guidance. You can find mini brochures, posters, free webinars, and the Back to Work Safely documents at the Back to Work Safely website. Please email me if you’d like help with this project. Thanks in advance for your volunteerism!

Mark Ames

Mark Ames is AIHA’s director of Government Relations.


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