Health and Education Experts Weigh in on How Schools Can Maximize Health and Safety as They Look to Reopen

JULY 8, 2020 (New York)—Amid recent spikes in COVID-19 cases in much of the United States, school systems are grappling with whether and how to reopen for the 2020-2021 academic school year without clear public health guidance. Today, joined by some of the country’s top educational leaders, Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC Director and President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of the global health organization Vital Strategies, released an issue brief outlining global best practices and a summary of the most important questions and key considerations for administrators, parents and educators as schools prepare to reopen.

“Schools play an essential role in the health, educational and social development of children and in functioning of the economy,” said Dr. Frieden. “It’s not a matter of whether we reopen schools, it’s how. If we work together to stop the virus and support the school community, more students will be able to return to in-person learning more safely.”

Classes typically begin in early August in many southern states such as Florida, where infections appear to be on the rise.

Joined by former U.S. Secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings and Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia William R. Hite, Jr. at a press briefing today, Dr. Frieden urged staff and educators to review CDC guidance, and calibrate their precautions according to the severity of the local epidemic, tightening restrictions when there is community spread and only relaxing them if there are few to no cases. In addition to the prevalence of the virus in the community, staff and educators must consider how many people gather together, in what proximity, over how much time, with what level of ventilation, and with what proportion wearing masks.

“The health of our students, teachers and staff must be our top priority, and public health expertise should guide our decision-making every step of the way,” said former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who served from 2009-2015 under President Barack Obama.

“This guidance from Resolve seeks to fill a gap in public health information as education leaders begin to make important decisions,” said Margaret Spellings, who served as Secretary of Education between 2005-2009 under President George W. Bush.

“As the start of the school year approaches, there are many important decisions that need to be made and strategies that will need to be developed in order for us to prepare a plan for returning to schools. We are relying on the input and guidance from public health experts to ensure that our plan will provide the safest and healthiest plan for instruction and learning,” said William R. Hite, Jr., Ed.D., who has served as superintendent of The School District of Philadelphia, the largest public school system in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, since 2012.

The issue brief includes practical, evidence-based answers to many of the more difficult questions that are asked, including:

  • Should students who live with elderly family-members or other medically vulnerable people attend school?
    • Parents and students will have to weigh the risks carefully and consider which they can reduce. If a student can isolate from medically vulnerable household members by limiting interactions and using a different bathroom, he or she may be able to attend school without exposing family to undue risk. On the other hand, in the case of an older child who can attend school remotely, it may be preferable to forgo in-person attendance and reduce the risk of spread in the home.
  • What should a school do if a student or educator tests positive for COVID-19?
    • Administrators should prepare for infections in their staff and student body with detailed and rehearsed protocols and should designate a COVID-19 isolation space separate from where routine medical care is provided. Any sick individuals should be advised to stay home until they meet CDC’s criteria to discontinue isolation, and people who had close contact with an infected individual should quarantine for 14 days after the last possible exposure. This underscores the importance of observing physical distancing measures, to forgo the disruption of many people needing to be quarantined. The CDC has prepared additional guidance for preparing when someone gets sick.
  • What policies should schools adopt about wearing masks?
    • Face coverings help reduce disease transmission in cases where the wearer is unknowingly infected but does not have symptoms. The more people wear these masks, the better. Although it may be challenging to wear masks all day (particularly for younger children), school staff should wear face coverings and students should be taught to wear them and encouraged to do so, particularly when physical distancing is not possible. Schools can also offer “mask breaks” throughout the day, so long as students are physically distanced or, ideally, outside. Face coverings should not be placed on children younger than two years old, anyone who has trouble breathing, or anyone unable to remove the covering without assistance.
  • Can classrooms be rearranged to reduce transmission?
    • Instead of organizing students in a circle or in small groups, they should be seated in rows, appropriately physically distanced, and all facing the same direction. Teachers should also consider assigning seats, so students are consistently in the same orientation to one another.
  • Should teachers explore alternatives to holding class indoors?
    • If conditions allow, it is much safer to hold class outdoors. Doing so reduces the risk of transmitting the virus through the air and through contaminated surfaces. To spread students out further, schools may consider repurposing auditoriums, gymnasiums for additional classroom space, and reaching out to community partners about unused local spaces such as neighborhood libraries.

See more frequently asked questions and answers to them here and link to briefing recording here.


Media Contacts:

Christina Honeysett, Vital Strategies: [email protected]; +1.914.424.3356

Erin Sykes, Resolve to Save Lives: [email protected]; +1.646.612.0001

Monica Guerrero, Chicago Cred: [email protected]; +1.312.626.1138

Merrill Davis, Texas 2036: [email protected]; +1.469.384.2036

Monica Lewis, The School District of Philadelphia: [email protected]; +1.215.400.6581

About Dr. Tom Frieden

Dr. Tom Frieden is former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and former commissioner of the New York City Health Department. He is currently president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global non-profit initiative which is part of the global non-profit Vital Strategies. @DrTomFrieden.

About Resolve to Save Lives

Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, aims to prevent at least 100 million deaths from cardiovascular disease and epidemics. Through its Prevent Epidemics program, Resolve to Save Lives has rapidly leveraged existing networks to partner with countries throughout Africa and beyond to combat COVID-19. Resolve is led by Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is part of the global health organization Vital Strategies. To find out more visit: or Twitter @ResolveTSL

Resolve to Save Lives created a website called that shows how prepared each country is for an epidemic, including COVID-19, and how many flights are coming and going from infected countries. This site is also a resource for current coronavirus statistics and resources.

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. To find out more, please visit or Twitter @VitalStrat.

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Media Contact

[email protected]

About Resolve to Save Lives

Resolve to Save Lives is a not-for-profit organization partnering with countries, communities and organizations to prevent 100 million deaths from cardiovascular disease and make the world safer from epidemics. To find out more, visit: or Twitter @ResolveTSL.