At the same time the United States is experiencing its highest-ever daily counts of new coronavirus cases, several states are talking about how they will reopen schools in just a few months.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition, but states have little choice but to start answering questions about the academic year in time to prepare.
Their approaches to school reopenings have been just as widely disparate as their decisions on how to reopen businesses while the coronavirus looms. Kentucky plans
to require students to wear masks, undergo temperature checks and keep six feet apart from each other during the school day. In Georgia, on the other hand, decisions about how to operate schools will be left
to local districts.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker stressed the benefits of reopening schools quickly when unveiling his state’s plan.
“Continued isolation poses very real risks to our kids’ mental and physical health, and to their educational development,” he said
. “This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students, which is to bring them back to school to learn and grow.”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is pushing for schools to return to a five-day-a-week schedule, as long as coronavirus infections remain under control. “I wanted to make sure we had a class day and a class week that was something that employers can bank upon for their employees, so they knew what the schedule would be,” Lamont explained
Almost every plan for reopening has met with stiff resistance, because communities themselves are split about the best approach.
Many school districts have surveyed parents to find out what approach they prefer, noted Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
“Many parents are responding by saying, we’re not going to send their kids to school, because we’re afraid that the environment won’t be safe for them,” he said. “At the same time, you have a number of parents that are saying, ‘We need to work. And in order to do that, we need to have our children in school. So we need you to open, period.’’
The decisions by schools could have much bigger implications for communities. Parents who have to take care of children at home may not be able to return to work. But if schools help spread covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, reopening them could jeopardize people’s lives.
“What it comes down to is a fight between the economy and the health and safety of people,” Domenech said.
The most popular option for districts right now, he said, is a hybrid approach that would blend some in-person instruction with some remote learning. That would allow fewer students to be in the buildings at any given time, which would help keep them apart from one another, teachers and staff to reduce the risks of infection. But it means students would still be at home two or three days a week, and it could put vulnerable teachers and staff at risk of catching covid-19.
Districts are also looking to guidance
issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that encourage the use of cloth masks, frequent hand washing, and individual meals and water bottles brought from home by each student.
“They’re trying to make the classrooms less dense,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “The idea is that you really want to avoid having kids congregate. So no recess, no school assemblies. You just go into the classroom, sit at your desk, which is six feet apart from the closest desk and go about the day with very little breaks,” he said.
But no one really knows if that will be enough to keep the coronavirus from spreading among kids. Even though the virus poses few serious health risks for most young children, they can still transmit the virus among each other and bring it home into the community.
“Frequently how communicable diseases, infectious diseases get spread through a community is through kids,” Plescia said, “because they’re in such close contact in various settings, they often don’t practice the same sort of level of hygiene and they get pretty close to each other.”
“That could very well happen with covid. And I think that’s the biggest concern,” he said.
What’s more, many of the precautions that school districts would have to put into place cost money, and money for school districts is scarce right now, said Domenech from the superintendents association.
Keeping buildings open will require more cleaning and sanitizing every day. Transporting kids on school buses could become a lot more expensive, as a school bus that normally carries 67 kids could carry as few as 12 to maintain proper social distancing, he said.
Those health-related costs add up to about $490 per pupil, which, for an average-sized district, comes out to an additional $1.8 million. And that doesn’t even include the additional costs for providing distance learning.
“To a lot of districts, it seems to be almost an impossible task,” Domenech said. “The options for districts that do not have the money to open school safely would be to either put all of their students on remote learning for this coming school year, or you open schools in an unsafe environment. That’s a big problem. The consequences are horrendous.”
Meanwhile, teacher unions around the country have objected to what they see as a rush to reopen schools. They’ve asked for more protections for staff, along with more resources to increase the numbers of school nurses.
“There is nowhere our teachers would rather be than in their classrooms in August not having to rely on distance learning. But we have to pay attention to the reality of our communities,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers this week. “We can’t let schools become the next hot zone.”
Plescia, the medical director from the association of health officials, said increasing the number of school nurses and other health professionals would certainly help schools keep coronavirus outbreaks under control. The nurses, he said, could help administer routine covid-19 tests to make sure teachers, staff and students weren’t being infected. But he doesn’t anticipate that schools will see an influx of health personnel soon.
“We’re not going to solve that problem during the covid epidemic,” he said. “We’re having a hard enough time getting contact tracers hired up and doing some of the other things that are probably higher priority.”
Domenech said the pandemic has forced policymakers to confront long-standing issues that have dogged school systems, such as wide disparities in resources that have helped some wealthy school districts transition easily to distance learning while under-funded districts struggle to teach kids who lack computers or internet connections at home.
He’s hoping that Congress will pass a $200 billion relief package for schools that will help schools cover the increased costs of operating during the pandemic but also will help students continue their learning at home.
“We’ve always talked about the learning gap and the children who are left behind,” he said. “Well, those are the kids who are going to be even further behind because those are the kids who are getting no instruction.”