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.
public school students impacted by school closures
- 10%of students
have missed class, a 50% increase since schools closed
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our learning partner, Mathematica, studied the efforts of the pilots to implement screening testing protocols. Based on early learnings from the schools that have implemented or plan to use antigen tests to screen for the virus in their schools, as well as results from statistical models designed to estimate the potential value of regular testing, the pilots surfaced several key considerations about the acceptability and feasibility of designing and setting up school-based testing programs, as well as the potential effectiveness of these programs. The report found that weekly testing of all students, teachers, and staff can reduce in-school infections by an estimated 50 percent when combined with masking and distancing.
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.
Both reports found that even for the most well-resourced districts and schools, launching a Covid-19 testing program was a major undertaking that required access to rapid-turnaround tests, additional staffing or strong partners for logistical support, technical assistance for the design and execution of testing programs, and a strategy for successfully engaging the school community to participate in testing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ShahPresident, The Rockefeller Foundation
Meet our Partners
By combining rapid testing with protective measures like wearing masks, physically distancing, and improved ventilation, schools can both protect students, teachers, and administrators from Covid-19 and detect new cases to reduce the risk of further transmission.Dr. Caitlin RiversSenior Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
The Cross-City Learning Group has been invaluable in developing K-12 testing and control initiatives for the state of Illinois. We appreciate the camaraderie and The Rockefeller Foundation’s leadership in bringing us together.Dr. Rebecca Lee SmithAssociate Professor of Epidemiology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Our findings can help schools and public health leaders decide how to add antigen testing to their suite of strategies to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.Divya VohraResearcher, Mathematica
Widespread regular testing is the heart of any successful school reopening plan, particularly in the absence of widely available vaccines.Randi WeingartenPresident, American Federation of Teachers
We must ensure schools have the resources to bring children back into the classroom, and that those resources are distributed equitably—with an emphasis on helping the children who have suffered the most during the pandemic, including students of color, those from low-income families, and children with disabilities.Mike MageeCEO, Chiefs for Change
As a country, we have a moral responsibility to figure out how we safely get students back to school and we now have an evidence base that we can leverage in doing that.John KingPresident and CEO, The Education Trust; former Secretary of Education under President Obama
A Way Forward: Reopening Schools
Covid-19 vaccines have arrived, with enough supply to vaccinate as many as 50 million people by the end of January. But these initial doses will do little in the short term to arrest an epidemic that is raging out of control. This episode of #RFBreakthrough our panel held a discussion about what it will take […]More