Reopening K-12 Schools


A commitment to public education has since its earliest days been a defining feature of American democracy and a central tool for achieving equity. Schools are often at the geographic heart of communities and protecting children is a primary moral obligation. A fully reopened K-12 school system should be the hallmark of the American return to social and economic health.

School closures have taken an unthinkable toll on children — a social, emotional and academic ordeal so extreme that some advocates and experts warn its repercussions could rival those of a hurricane or other disaster.

  • 51million

    public school students impacted by school closures

  • 10%of students

    have missed class, a 50% increase since schools closed

  • 17million

    students who depend on school meal programs face hunger with school closures

Despite the devastating rise in Covid-19 cases, there is some good news when it comes to children and schools, particularly young children. Data from the United States and abroad suggest that because of strong mitigation measures, schools are some of the safest places in a community, particularly with testing in place. Widespread, regular testing remains critical to school reopening, and combined with the right steps and federal support — even before the new vaccines are widely available — the nation’s more than 98,000 public schools could be open soon, getting students back to in-person learning.


By leveraging breakthroughs in test production, investing in protocols and infrastructure, and of course, prioritizing getting teachers vaccinated, we can minimize risks enough for everyone – teachers, parents, and staff– to trust being back in a classroom.

School reopening amidst a global health crisis is an incredibly complex issue. The Rockefeller Foundation, working with partners, have spent months issuing plans, studying guidance, surveying stakeholders, briefing policymakers, and supporting cities, suburbs and rural communities alike in their effort to reopen safely and equitably. By leveraging breakthroughs in test production, investing in protocols and infrastructure, and of course, prioritizing getting teachers vaccinated, we can minimize risks enough for everyone – teachers, parents, and staff– to trust being back in a classroom.

Science-Based Foundation

In order to facilitate the safe reopening of schools, effective measures to prevent Covid-19 transmission must be at the forefront. The Rockefeller Foundation works with academic partners at Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security to ensure that critical considerations to understand Covid-19 risk and spread provide the foundation of our work.

In October 2020, our academic partners released first-of-its-kind screening testing protocols for K-12 schools that offers a risk assessment and testing guidance that can be adapted to reflect the risk of Covid-19 in a school’s community. It also considers the benefits of transmission reduction alongside the costs of testing and of managing “false positive” results.

The groundbreaking report builds upon the Duke Margolis framework for public health officials and community leaders in schools, businesses and other institutions on how to use Covid-19 screening test strategies to operate safely and prevent further spread of the virus.

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National Action Plan

In combination with the testing protocols, The Rockefeller Foundation published our third National Action Plan, which calls on the U.S. government to massively scale up Covid-19 testing to 300 million per month for students, teachers, and staff in order to reopen and keep open public schools in the United States by March. The Plan lays out the largest domestic testing scaleup to date and proposes 14 executive actions for the current and incoming administrations to take in order to rapidly alter the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States. Testing all U.S. public K-12 public schools would cost $42.5 billion, or $8.5 billion per month for the remainder of the school year from February-June 2021.

The plan recommends testing students at least once a week and teachers and staff twice a week and reopening in three waves with public elementary schools opening first followed by middle schools and then high schools. To make sure the supply meets the real-time demand, the plan also indicates that the U.S. government would need to centralize procurement and payment for all tests and test supplies for schools and deploy the workforce needed to support proactive testing. Lastly, the plan recommends effective communication from government, public health, and education leaders to build trust in reopening schools safely.

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Real-World Evidence

To test and refine screening testing programs developed by the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, The Rockefeller Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding in October 2020 with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which sent 140,000 Abbott BinaxNOW tests to initially support 6 pilots in Louisville, Ky.; Los Angeles, CA; New Orleans, LA; Tulsa, OK.; the state of Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C.

young male child getting swabbed in the mouth by a woman in protective gear

Our learning partner, Mathematica, studied the efforts of the pilots to implement screening testing protocols. Based on lessons learned from 335 school-based sites nationwide and the experiences of education and public health leaders who implemented school-based testing through The Rockefeller Foundation’s K-12 Testing Protocol Demonstration Project. The pilots surfaced several key considerations about the acceptability, feasibility, effectiveness, and sustainability of designing and setting up school-based testing programs. The report found that implementing routine Covid-19 testing of all students, teachers, and staff can significantly reduce—and in some cases eliminate— in school transmission of the virus.

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The Rockefeller Foundation also commissioned the RAND Corporation to study promising practices from a review of Covid-19 testing programs implemented by K-12 schools nationwide and a deep dive of 10 schools, districts, and states who were early adopters of Covid-19 testing. It includes recommendations to school leaders, district officials, and policymakers on how to make widespread Covid-19 testing in schools feasible, acceptable, and effective. The experiences of early adopters of Covid-19 testing show that regular testing can be effectively integrated into schools’ Covid-19 response plans and can help families and staff feel comfortable participating in in-person instruction.

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The Rockefeller Foundation’s K-12 National Testing Action Program, developed in collaboration with 21 U.S. labs and testing manufacturers, is designed to operationalize the $10 billion allocated to K-12 school testing under the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan. The program highlights a 3-step testing protocol to test teachers twice a week and students once a week with case studies on early-adopter of school-based testing. In addition, NTAP connects schools with testing vendors and provides critical considerations when selecting a proposal through a vendor checklist for school administrators.



Step-by-Step Guidance

Given the complex, logistical challenge of implementing screening testing programs in K-12 schools, The Rockefeller Foundation and Skoll Foundation supported the development of the Covid-19 Testing in K-12 Settings: A Playbook for Educators and Leaders, created by Testing for America, which provides detailed, step-by-step guidance to help educators, leaders, and their public health partners design and implement effective testing programs in schools.

Image is of a diverse group of elementary school kids lined up outside of school wearing masks.

The Playbook incorporates science-based testing protocols from Duke-Margolis and Johns Hopkins University and builds on the research from Mathematica and the RAND Corporation. Most importantly, it includes first-hand experiences on best practices and lessons learned from the Foundation’s Cross-City Learning Group, a community of practice consisting of school district and public health leaders working to implement screening testing programs in K-12 and university school settings.

To accompany the step-by-step guidance laid out in the K-12 Testing Playbook, the Foundation gathered additional examples and resources to equip school and school district leaders for the design and roll-out of their testing programs from our partners.

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Testing Alliance

The Foundation’s State and Territory Alliance on Testing is a bipartisan group created in August that now includes 26 states. Governors in the Alliance use their joint purchasing power through the Foundation’s $30 million Advance Market Commitment, to encourage manufacturers to ramp up the production of rapid tests, reduce prices and provide quicker delivery. So far, states have used the Alliance’s leverage to purchase millions of rapid tests, which are going straight to schools and other public settings on the frontlines of the pandemic.

In the Alliance’s K-12 Reopening Action Network, members meet weekly to learn about advances in testing for school settings, share success stories, and listen to experts preview recent trends and the most promising technological breakthroughs.

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Baltimore Health Corps Pilot: Summary of Early Lessons

Building on the successful testing model implemented in university settings, The Rockefeller Foundation will support the efforts of both the Consortium of Universities and the University of Illinois to expand the covidShield test-and-trace program to K-12 schools to support reopening efforts within Washington, DC and Baltimore.

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  • Report

    July 2021 Parent Survey About School Hesitancy and Preferences for Covid-19 Safety Practices in Schools

    A national survey of more than 3,100 parents across the US conducted in July 2021 by RAND Corporation and commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation found that even with rising Covid-19 cases from the Delta variant, 9 out of 10 parents plan to send their child to school for in-person learning this fall. This survey and […]
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  • We want schools to be the safest place in a community next to the home, and the latest evidence shows that widespread in-school Covid-19 testing helps make that possible.
    Dr. Rajiv J Shah
    President, The Rockefeller Foundation

Related Updates

Oct 29 2021
Press Releases
White House Fact Sheet: Biden Administration Announces Additional Actions To Increase Covid-19 Screening Testing in Schools and Keep Students Safe
Feb 18 2021
Press Releases
Testing for America Releases How-To Guide for Testing Programs to Reopen Schools Safely
Jan 25 2021
Press Releases
New Covid-19 Testing Guidance to Protect Seniors and Those Living With Disabilities
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