The U.S. Department of Education announced that all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia will receive funds to reopen K-12 schools safely by May. Here's what doctors and White House experts say this means for families.

By Maressa Brown
March 25, 2021
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An image of a teacher checking a student's temperature.
Credit: Getty Images.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the amount of funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) that will be going to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia in order to reopen K-12 schools safely by May. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is providing $10 billion to states to support COVID-19 screening testing for K-12 teachers, staff, and students in schools.

It's one step closer to safely reopening the majority of K-8 schools—one of President Joe Biden's goals for the first 100 days of his administration.

"For a working mom, it's music to my ears to hear this long-awaited announcement that we're going to aggressively get our kids back in school and learning again," says Ashley Etienne, communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris and mom of a 5-year-old daughter.

But if parents have questions about what going back to classrooms looks like, they're not alone. Here's what concerned parents should know now and going into a post-COVID world.

Protective Measures in Schools

Amna Husain, M.D., F.A.A.P., a board-certified pediatrician, founder of Pure Direct Pediatrics in Marlboro, New Jersey and a mom of a young child herself, knows that many parents—especially those of immunocompromised children, in particular—are concerned about resuming classes in person.

The new funding will aim to increase both protective measures and COVID-19 screening for students, teachers, and staff—all with the goal of lowering the chances for the virus to spread in schools. Specifically, $10 billion will help schools screen teachers, staff, and students, while another $2.25 billion will go toward additional testing in underserved populations and developing new guidance on screening in schools, according to a statement from HHS.

"This funding can be used to test teachers and staff, students and others with symptoms of COVID, those who may have been exposed and to establish sustained, regular screening testing programs across the school system," explained White House COVID-19 testing coordinator Carole Johnson in a briefing that was reported on by CNN. And more testing means it might be possible to identify asymptomatic cases and stop the potential spread of the virus.

Parents can also be assured that new research is driving updated guidance around physical distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced new guidelines, based on three studies published this month in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR):

  • Elementary school students should maintain at least three feet apart while wearing masks, regardless of community transmission rate.
  • Middle and high schoolers should maintain at least three feet, while wearing masks, in communities where transmission is low, moderate, or substantial.
  • In communities where transmission is high, middle school students and high school students should still be at least six feet apart if cohorting (when groups of students remain together throughout the school day) is not possible.

But Dr. Husain notes, "I would still advise we continue physical distancing and other prevention measures like universal masking, hand-washing, cleaning, diagnostic testing, quarantining those were sick or exposed, and contact tracing."

They can also take heart that vaccine approval for teens will likely come in late fall and for younger children perhaps in late 2021 or even early 2022, says Dr. Husain.

In the meantime, she's heartened to see that the American Rescue Plan funding will also allow for schools to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE), add space, improve insulation, hire more teachers, and implement interventions to support students.

Support for Parents

Etienne connects the dots between kids returning to the classroom and getting parents back to work—including the millions of women who have dropped out of the workforce since the start of the pandemic. The latest coronavirus stimulus checks aim to help struggling families, so people can pay their bills and cover child care, says Etienne. The bill also increases funding to child care centers so people can get back to work.

But the administration plans to tackle other systemic issues affecting working moms that have been exacerbated by COVID. Etienne also says she hopes the crisis serves to expedite workplaces' commitment to supporting "women's desires to pursue their own dreams and their happiness for their lives," understanding full well that they don't affect their ability to perform on the job.

Mental Health & Community

As much as they love their screen time, parents of young children learned just how hard it is to expect a kindergartner or first grader to learn remotely. Etienne, who has a 5-year-old daughter, can attest to this firsthand. Like many parents, she says she noticed her daughter's learning and social development was suffering, and she desperately missed her friends.

But Etienne noticed her daughter's mood lifted as soon as she was able to reunite with her class. "I came home, and I asked, 'How was it?' and she was like, 'Absolutely great!' I was like, 'Absolutely great?' She said, "Yes!'" the mom shares. "It really warmed my heart."

Dr. Husain agrees that getting back to school is a step in the right direction for the mental health of children and parents. "Children need to feel supported at this time," she notes.

Etienne adds, "We all have a responsibility to be safe and considerate of each other. That means wearing your mask, washing your hands, getting tested if you travel, taking a vaccine when it's your turn—with haste. Those are the most important elements that we can do."