Opening: Five school districts that kept their communities safe

In the COVID-19 Data Dispatch’s “Opening” series, Betsy Ladyzhets identified and profiled five school communities that successfully reopened during the 2020-2021 school year. In each one, the majority of the district’s or school’s students returned to in-person learning by the end of the spring semester — and officials identified COVID-19 cases in under 5% of the student population.

This project was supported with a data reporting grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. It was published in a series of articles on the COVID-19 Data Dispatch website in August and September 2021.

Here are the articles:

  • Introduction: Reopening debates have dominated headlines, but not all U.S. schools were fighting grounds. This article explains the motivations behind this series, as well as the data methodology Betsy used to select the five school communities that she profiled.
  • Scott County School District 1 in Austin, Indiana: This small district faced a major HIV/AIDS outbreak in 2015, leading to an open line of communication between Austin’s county public health agency, school administrators, and other local leaders which fostered an environment of collaboration and trust during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Garrett County Public Schools in Maryland: In a rural, geographically spaced-out county, this district built trust with its community by utilizing local partnerships, providing families with crucial supplies, setting up task forces to plan reopening, and communicating extensively with parents.
  • Andrews Independent School District in Texas: This West Texas district prioritized personal responsibility, giving families information to make individual choices about their children’s safety. Outdoor classes and other measures also helped keep cases down.
  • Port Orford-Langlois School District 2CJ in OregonIn two tiny towns on the coast of Oregon, this district built up community trust and used a cautious, step-by-step reopening strategy to make it through the 2020-2021 school year with zero cases identified in school buildings.
  • P.S. 705 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York: This elementary school brought 55% of students back to in-person class, well above the New York City average (40%), by utilizing comprehensive parent communication and surveillance testing of students and staff.
  • Conclusion: 11 lessons from the schools that safely reopened: Through exploring the five success stories in this project, Betsy found that the schools used many similar strategies to build trust with their communities and keep COVID-19 case numbers down. This article goes through eleven major lessons from the project.

In addition to reporting and writing, Betsy produced several data visualizations to accompany the articles in this series.

Through the Solutions Journalism Network’s partnerships and Betsy’s prior connections with editors at science and health publications, the Opening project was republished by several different outlets — bringing the stories to a national audience.

Republications included (but were not limited to):

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