Reopening Schools: Ensuring Healthy Work for K-12 Educators

By Marnie Dobson, Ph.D.
and Pouran Faghri, M.D.

School reopening during COVID-19 is a worker health and safety issue. This August-September, thousands of teachers and staff and their unions were concerned about being forced back into classrooms by state and local governments, some in districts which did not follow recommended CDC guidelines regarding physical distancing or mask-wearing. While many of the largest school districts in the country decided to begin the school year in online learning, many other schools even in regions with a high level of virus transmission that tried to open in-person, experienced outbreaks and were forced to close again.

Unfortunately, teachers and other staff have died from COVID-19 since school reopenings began. Many teachers and staff are in high risk categories - older, having pre-existing conditions, or caring for family members with pre-existing conditions, but some younger teachers have also died.

In July as part of the Healthy Work Campaign, we published an article Reopening Schools: Mental Health vs Health & Safety? about the debate raging in the U.S. about whether schools (K-12) could safely re-open in the Fall for in-person classes despite the surging COVID-19 pandemic. The debate seemed to hinge on whether the health and safety concerns related to teaching in-person during the pandemic, could be outweighed by the educational deficits and mental health issues for students and parents as a result of the shutdowns and distance learning that began in March 2020.

We recently published an update to this article in the Healthy Work Campaign blog to find out what are the health and safety consequences, so far, of school reopenings. It turns out that the evidence is clear that children are not immune, outbreaks do occur among children in close proximity to each other, and that infections in children increased substantially through the summer and may be increasing again in the early Fall. We also found that tracking school outbreaks has been spotty at best. In August a Kansas teacher took it upon herself to comb the internet for news stories about school infections, teacher cases and deaths and began a Google spreadsheet. The project became an overwhelming success and has been taken on by the National Education Association which launched the NEA School and Campus Reporting Site. However, it is problematic that surveillance of this important public health crisis in our education system is left to individuals or professional associations and not the government.

Teachers’ advocacy efforts are helping to protect not only their own health and safety, but also the health & safety of students and the community by fighting for adequate PPE, attempting social distanced, hybrid teaching methods, and improving online learning. Teachers are on the frontlines and are at greater risk of exposure to the virus, but they are also vulnerable to increased job stress and burnout. There have been efforts in the past by teachers and their unions to develop effective interventions to reduce this burden, but further efforts in this regard are needed now more than ever. It is important that we all support our teachers and staff as they continue doing the heavy lifting in educating our children through this unprecedented time, while also fighting for safe work environments.

Marnie Dobson, Ph.D., and Pouran Faghri, M.D., are CPH-NEW Research Affiliates and Associate Researchers of the Healthy Work Campaign.