This piece originally appeared in The Hechinger Report; the version below has been lightly edited for style.
President Joe Biden began his term in office calling for unity. To reach that end, some of his initial policies must create common ground to rebuild a society decimated by COVID-19, conspiracy theories, and white supremacy. Perhaps the only thing we can all agree on right now is that we must reopen schools safely—and as soon as possible.
Among the more than 30 executive orders issued in Biden’s first week in office, one of them calls for a plan to do just that. It’s crazy to think we’ve been waiting for almost a year for something as simple as a plan of action. Finally, Biden and his nominee for secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, can make significant strides toward getting our kids off video calls and back into school buildings. Cardona already has some experience: As education commissioner for Connecticut, he insisted on reopening schools safely during the pandemic, a position that helped him earn Biden’s nomination.
But the new administration must understand that the United States needs to heal medically and socially. Will getting schools going heal the country? Maybe not by itself, but reopening is a crucial first step to developing a new normal post-COVID-19. To unify us around schools, the plan must accomplish four significant goals—some of which were included in the executive order to reopen education facilities, some not: provide the requisite resources to reopen schools safely; systematically vaccinate school personnel and students; extend the school year into the summer months; and revive course content in civics and history, a critical step toward healing the fractures dividing our country.
1. Provide the resources to reopen schools safely.
First, reopen schools safely. The executive order to reopen schools calls for a couple of small but important first steps: collecting data “to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators,” as well as setting evidence-based guidance on whether and how education providers can reopen for in-person learning, including “mitigation measures such as cleaning, masking, proper ventilation, and testing.” We’ve been waiting since the end of February for this basic information, which will give K-12 schools, child-care providers, Head Start programs, and higher education institutions a comprehensive strategy to reopen.
Although simple, this first step—reopening schools—requires significant collaboration with other federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as different educational institutions and a diverse array of state, local, and tribal jurisdictions. To carry out the guidance, K-12 schools and other education providers will need a lot of money. Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill includes a $170 billion stimulus package for education providers; without the full amount, any reopening plan will place students, teachers, and communities at risk.
2. Systematically vaccinate school personnel and students.
The public must push Biden to do more to achieve the goals that aren’t included in the executive order to reopen schools. Even if the money comes through and the plans are airtight, reopening strategies will be dead in the water without a coordinated vaccine effort that makes sure school personnel are prioritized quickly and efficiently.
Therefore, second, the Biden administration must systematically vaccinate educators and others who serve our children. I have argued before that teachers, cafeteria workers, school-bus drivers, and other education personnel should be next in line for the coronavirus vaccine. I also believe school nurses can assist the vaccination plans by giving shots to children. Prioritizing schools as a site for vaccinations can accelerate the pace of distribution. Doing so would also recognize the close connection between keeping schools open and getting people back to work. An executive order can help make this happen.
3. Extend the school year into the summer months.
The third step in any sound reopening plan is to understand that getting the school doors open this spring will be pointless if they’re shuttered again two months later for summer vacation. Schools must be opened—and then schools must stay open for much of the summer. Students’ collective absence from in-person school means they will need extensive face-time with their teachers if they’re ever going to recoup learning losses. Although data on learning loss is still coming in, we have enough information now to say with certainty that children—especially low-income children and children of color—are falling behind in reading and math. We must make up for lost time in the summer months.
4. Revive course content in civics and history.
At the same time, we can’t repeat the mistakes we’ve made for the last 20 years by focusing on math and reading to the exclusion of other core subjects. Last year was a hard lesson in what happens when the public lacks an understanding of science and social studies. We are ailing socially and politically. The failed insurrection on Jan. 6 was an outbreak of that sickness. The storming of the Capitol made clear that the United States cannot afford to raise another generation of children on falsehoods.
Students must be held accountable for learning the truth about American history and racism in this country. White supremacy is facilitated by bad history and civic education. Racism is the mother of conspiracies. Racism spawned horrible ideas and beliefs like drapetomania, eugenics, “the lost cause,” and birtherism to provide cover for immoral, unjustifiable actions
That’s why Biden’s fourth step should be to encourage schools to revive history and civics education. Our children need more time getting a quality education. Where last summer was spent in division and unrest, we should use this one to heal.
Philosopher John Dewey wrote in “Democracy and Education,” that education “is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” The only way to save our nation is to do whatever it takes to reopen our schools safely and as soon as we can, and then make sure they teach the kind of civics and history that encourages democracy and inclusion.
The executive order to reopen schools can be a start, but we the people must ultimately heal ourselves using the information that builds community. Schools can be the common ground that we’ve been looking for.
The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.
In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.