The latest surge of COVID-19 is met by an exhausted nation. Parents and families with children are especially worn out after nearly two years of inconsistent in-person schooling. Still, as case counts and test positivity rates eclipsed those from all prior pandemic waves, and hospitals reached a near breaking point, powerful voices, including former Baltimore Health Commissioner and frequent CNN commentator Leana Wen and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, are blaming teachers and unions for stonewalling against school opening.

This blame is misguided.

As public health scientists and parents of young children, we agree that children thrive from interaction with peers and consistent access to education, care, and instruction from supportive professionals. But the blame for school closures should not be placed on teachers and unions, who are critical allies to sustaining in-person education.

We should not be forced to choose between children’s education and the health and safety of the educators providing it. We can’t blame teachers for being hesitant to come to work at schools that lack sufficient tools to prevent COVID-19 such as space for social distancing, proper ventilation, and masking requirements.

But most importantly, the main reason schools can’t stay open is because of the unchecked spread of COVID-19 in our community. This makes it nearly impossible to sustain in-person instruction — sometimes, there simply aren’t enough staff. And that is not teachers’ fault.

So the only way to keep schools open is to reduce COVID-19 levels in the community at large.

Our nation needs to call loudly for a reset of COVID-19 policies, directing our righteous frustration to the leaders who have failed us.

» READ MORE: I have a chronic illness. During COVID, isn’t my life worth protecting? | Opinion

Reducing community transmission of the omicron variant is key to keeping schools open, but requires going beyond reliance on vaccines alone to end the pandemic. We need a “vaccines plus” public health approach that integrates vaccines with other non-pharmaceutical interventions that have been proven effective.

In January 2021, President Joe Biden unveiled just such a COVID-19 plan, a “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness.” To date, the promises of the plan remain largely unfulfilled. Several elements of the plan warrant immediate action.

First, the administration must call for universal indoor masking and provide abundant, free, high-quality masks (such as N95s or KN95s) to all for use in schools and communities. The Biden plan promised to “implement masking nationwide by working with governors, mayors, and the American people.” The plan further stated that “the federal government will support and provide resources to schools that sign up for appropriate mask wearing.” The administration recently announced that it would provide about 400 million free N95s. This is a step in the right direction, but this effort must be sustained. Free high-quality masks should be readily available in the months to come, including for use in schools. We are also still waiting on strong calls for universal indoor masking and clear messaging on the benefits of using high-quality masks.

Second, the administration must keep its promise to “protect workers and issue stronger worker safety guidance.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must expand the emergency temporary standards to cover all employment settings in which people are working indoors. Immediate efforts to improve school and workplace ventilation through portable air filters and a longer-term plan for supporting workplace ventilation upgrades going forward are desperately needed. For chronically underfunded schools, including the School District of Philadelphia, federal coronavirus relief dollars will help: Philadelphia will allocate $325 million in relief funds to repair aging infrastructure, in addition to a planned $2 billion infrastructure investment over the next six years. Still, the School District expects a $100 million shortfall by 2026. Schools need support to make these safety upgrades.

Third, the president planned to “fund rapid test acquisition and distribution for priority populations, work to spur development and manufacturing of at-home tests and work to ensure that tests are widely available.” The administration recently launched a program to ship four test kits to every household that requests them; this is a step in the right direction, but insufficient. There is still a testing shortage across the country, and test prices remain high at many retailers. Free and easy access to rapid tests should not be limited to those with private insurance; everyone needs and deserves them. Without enough tests, we cannot conduct critical surveillance to support schools, workplaces, and individuals to break chains of transmission.

Fourth, the plan aimed to “protect those most at risk and advance equity, including across racial, ethnic, and rural/urban lines.” But recent data continue to reveal devastating inequities in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, including in children. Each of the policy lapses noted above threatens to deepen those inequities. To close these gaps, we need to focus on efforts to increase vaccinations, masking, low-cost and easily available testing, and school and workplace safety in BIPOC communities, across urban/rural divide, and in states with variable or limited support for COVID-19 prevention.

Finally, the administration must guarantee paid medical leave for workers who are in quarantine or isolation, a step that is especially critical to protecting our most vulnerable low-wage workers, who often face the impossible choice of lost wages or showing up to work sick.

It’s time to stop blaming teachers and unions and return to Biden’s original plan to drive down community transmission and safely reopen schools. Only when we stem the tide of infections and flatten the curve will schools be able to function. We all benefit when our teachers and kids are healthy and safe. We need the administration to do better to control COVID-19.

Courtney Boen and Carolyn Cannuscio, faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania, are writing on behalf of the Public Health Policy and Equity Network (PEN), a collective of scholars from across the country.