Back to School in a Pandemic – Sorting Out the Policy Puzzle

By Janet Forbush

Millions of students from pre-K through college are now either beginning to or returning to classrooms throughout the United States. The pervasive influence of COVID-19 and the Delta variant continues to create havoc in our lives and cause extraordinary duress in the policy environment. For example, there is a dramatic increase of COVID 19 infections among children (1 in 4 as of today). That environment warrants our attention at this critical time.

So how can we put our arms around this web of federal, state, and local policies that are guiding school mask and vaccination requirements in our community?  First and foremost, as mentoring researchers, program staff, mentors, and youth advocates, it’s critical to be informed. Get comfortable with state public health and education department requirements and/or recommendations highlighted on most of these public agency websites.

Youngsters who are 12 years of age or older can be vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (, a reservoir of science-based information and notable researchers, recently reported that only 50% of the 12+ youth population has been vaccinated.  Vaccinations are available at no cost throughout the country. Chronicle readers have likely learned through other reports from the CDC that the Delta variant spread is increasingly being detected in school-age and younger children. This is worrisome for the mentoring community as programs take steps to launch the new academic year with a sense of normalcy. Don’t hesitate to draw upon the wealth of resources from the CDC in the months to come.

The American Academy of Pediatrics ( offers additional science-based guidance and information on vaccination and masking. The Academy recommends that all children 12 years of age and up get vaccinated unless the person has any contraindications.

Digging deeper into resources from the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is encouraging to reflect on a prominent statement on the AAP website: “The AAP strongly recommends that school districts promote racial/ethnic and social justice by promoting the well-being of all children in any school COVID-19 plan, with a special focus on ensuring equitable access to educational supports for children living in underserved communities.”

Learning more about the different policymaking organizations and individuals responsible for guiding back-to-school- season in your state and community will be time well spent. We have all heard some of their names in newscasts in recent weeks but understanding the intersection of decision-making better enables us to be more effective in our advocacy.

Key organizations to know about are: American Association of School Administrators (, Council of Chief State School Officers (, National Association of State Boards of Education (, National School Boards Association (NSBA); and, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association. Both the AFT and NEA are the two largest teachers unions. For purposes of this column, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the US Department of Education, which are clearly prominent in states and localities at different degrees, should be tracked.

From this ‘shopping list’ of policy and membership organizations, knowing who your state superintendent or commissioner of education (title differs across the country) is, and their public position on masking and vaccination is a baseline piece of information. Then, what is the most recent vote among members of the state board of education on these issues? Further up in the chain of command, is the governor of your state supporting student masking and/or vaccination for age/health eligible students?  Policy disconnects in the state of Florida between the governor and at least six county superintendents have taken front and center in newscasts in recent weeks. As of the end of August, a 2nd District Federal Judge, John C. Cooper, ruled in favor of school superintendents in those districts who had defied the gubernatorial ban on student masking to protect students and staff.

All of the organizations identified above play a role in shaping the context of school environments throughout the country. In the case of the US Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights recently launched an investigation into state COVID-19 policies in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. The issue pertains to student rights of protection in public environment(s).

In another key domain, the US Department of Education Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, made available to states and localities through the American Rescue Plan, supports a wide array of services for students, including mental health. Mentoring programs, working in partnership with local school entities, could be instrumental in responding to the increased needs of young people for this assistance. Institutions of higher learning are also likely eligible for this funding.

Chronicle readers would be well advised to learn what funding has been allocated to your state/territory through The American Rescue Plan of 2021. A starting point is the website of the governor and then emanates to the state senate, assembly, county, and city jurisdictions. The amount of money available in this overall plan amounts to billions of dollars. States and localities have been able to acquire millions to address local needs tied to the effect(s) of COVID-19.

As a walk-through template, you might be interested to check out the website of Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland. At the end of March, after reaching a bipartisan agreement with state legislators on how Maryland would spend Rescue Plan dollars, he held a press conference accessible online. It specifies line items of support and education dollars including $46M to focus on long-term learning loss. This is important and just one aspect of the Maryland Strong Initiative.

Given that COVID-19 and the Delta variant are already interrupting our lives, with unexpected variants possibly on the horizon, being informed of the best practices in mentoring, coaching, and nurturing young people is essential. Policies influence practices. We need to know the policies and also help better inform them in the months to come.