Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

An Impossible Situation: Schools Will Reopen, but Can They Be Safe?

President Trump insists schools must reopen in the fall. It's a widely shared priority in terms of both childhood development and the economy, but there are serious challenges with the coronavirus still on the rise.

President Trump
President Trump participates in the National Dialogue on Safely Reopening Schools at the White House on Tuesday, July 7, 2020.
Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS
Steve Singer lays out a pretty good case for reopening schools. He teaches middle school English in Allegheny County, Pa., and found the sudden spring experiment in distance learning to be a failure. The unplanned shift incorporated all students, including those with learning styles not suited to online instruction. That is, for those kids who bothered to log on, and attendance was by no means universal. His own training as an online instructor, he says, was “really bad, almost a waste of time.”

All this happened at the end of the school year, when his relationships with students had already been established and much of the remaining time would have been devoted to prep for standardized tests anyway. To start off a new year this way, trying to engage and motivate students when teachers are just noisy pixels on a screen, is almost doomed to failure, Singer suggests.

For all that, Singer believes that distance learning is still a better choice than opening up schools during a pandemic. “We can go back and fix the problems we have with distance learning, if we’re alive,” he says. “Learning is great, but if you graduate to the cemetery, there’s no benefit.”

The stakes are high either way. Schools will start reopening next month. If they didn't, it would severely test the limits of parents who have already spent months juggling the demands of their jobs with caring for and in some cases home-schooling their children. A full economic recovery may be impossible to pull off without a plan for the nation's 55 million schoolchildren.

President Trump insists that schools reopen. He hosted a White House summit on the issue on Tuesday. “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everyone else to open the schools,” Trump said.

On Wednesday, he threatened to withhold federal aid to schools that don’t reopen. Trump complained that reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “very tough & expensive.” Within hours, the CDC announced it would release a watered-down version next week, with Vice President Mike Pence saying "we just don't want the guidance to be too tough" or a reason that schools stay shut.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reopening schools for classroom learning, concerned that they’ll otherwise experience problems with behavior, mental health, access to meals, socialization and development. Not to mention the need for learning. 

In a normal year, many kids seem to spend the summer forgetting much of what they’ve learned. That problem would be far worse if schools are not physically open for an extended period of time, says Christopher Morphew, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “There are plenty of studies that show that summer [learning loss] is a real thing,” he says. “I’m worried about the equivalent of a 16-month summer slide and its impact on our most at-risk students.”

At the same time, Morphew says it’s not unreasonable for parents and teachers to argue that the risks of reopening are too great. His own brother-in-law is an elementary school principal who has had COVID-19. Although there have been many calls from parents and even some demonstrations to reopen schools fully, polls show many parents are uncomfortable with sending kids back. One survey in May found that one in five teachers said they were unlikely to return to the classroom.

On Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that children in the nation's largest school system will attend in-person classes no more than one to three days a week, to limit class sizes. "Every single school district at this point needs to have plans in place to continue distance learning for 100 percent of the time," Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned school officials in a private phone call on Tuesday. (A recording was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.) "We would be irresponsible if we didn't say to you that you have to have the backup plan ready."

Waiting on Washington Aid

The American Academy of Pediatrics and Harvard University have released guidelines for lowering risk. Their recommendations differ to some degree but contain the advice you’d expect at this point – social distancing, masks for older kids, hand washing and improved hygiene and ventilation. It's not yet certain which of its own recommendations the CDC will jettison.

Everything involved costs money – more money for teachers and staff, more money for cleaning, more money to retrofit buildings. You don't have to be an airflow expert to walk into most public school buildings and know they're poorly ventilated. Expect to see a wide variation in testing protocols, dependent on costs and availability. Many schools would like at least to test teachers on re-entry and others will hope for regular tests of both adults and kids.

An earlier stimulus package known as the CARES Act included $13 billion for schools, but that won’t cover the whole of their increased costs. There are proposals in Congress to devote upward of $400 billion to school and childcare, but those bills aren’t moving. Instead, schools are seeing budget cuts at the state and local levels. 

Georgia’s new budget included nearly $1 billion in education cuts. California’s budget includes $11 billion in deferred payments to schools. Half that money will never be sent if more federal aid is not forthcoming and schools will have to borrow or find ways to plug holes while they wait for payments from the state. Last month, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson withheld $130 million from schools.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers have been laid off in recent months, although presumably many will be rehired as schools open. But there’s not going to be money in many places for hazard pay or to hire extra teachers to reduce class sizes, or aides to keep kids apart, or more bus drivers to prevent crowding.

Rather than a Marshall Plan to reopen schools – offering not just financial help but an agreed-upon plan to limit community spread of the coronavirus to the point where schools can be safe – most districts are being left to figure things out for themselves. Just over a third of principals surveyed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals were somewhat or extremely confident in their or their districts' ability to preserve the health of staff and students as schools reopen.

“The complexity of what you’re asking schools to do – it’s an impossible situation,” Morphew says. “Instead of marshaling the resources to make the impossible more possible, throwing everything we could at it, I fear that we recognize the impossibility of the situation and are throwing up our hands.”

Kids and Transmission

There are bound to be some risks in reopening schools. Children, especially young children, have suffered comparatively few ill effects from COVID-19. They are less likely than adults to be infected and more likely to be asymptomatic. The worst known effects on children, including a Kawasaki-like inflammatory syndrome, have been rare. 

Most studies suggest that children are less likely to spread the disease, although that finding is not yet a matter of scientific consensus. “Even among children, it’s not all the same,” says Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins. “By the time you get to adolescents, there may be more transmission than younger kids, but less than adults.”

He notes that kids are much less likely to transmit the coronavirus than the normal run of flu and colds that they typically bring home from school. “In other countries, schools have not been a source of outbreaks,” he says.

But countries that have reopened schools have had a better handle on the virus. (And they’ve been shut down again in countries from China to Israel.) Schools were among the first U.S. institutions to shut down in March. The nation hasn’t yet experienced the combination of community spread and open schools. 

That means adults – teachers, parents and grandparents – are potentially at risk when children attend school. “At the end of the day, it’s always been about who the kids infect, more than the kids,” says Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “The CliffsNotes version is there will be kids sick at school.”

Recent outbreaks at child-care centers, including more than 1,300 children and adults in Texas, have been a source of concern. Teachers are sharing memes on social media suggesting that if meetings to plan reopenings have to be held online, then reopening isn’t safe. More than 40 principals and district officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., were told to quarantine last week after being exposed during an in-person meeting two weeks earlier.

On Tuesday, the Burlington Community School District in Iowa moved its summer school program online after eight students had temperatures of 100.4 degrees or higher. It’s not clear what most schools will do when coronavirus turns up. They may try to keep kids contained within small groups – perhaps having teachers go from classroom to classroom while the students sit still – but it’s not certain they’ll remain successfully separated, particularly when they have siblings.

“You have to have a plan in place so you don’t shut down the whole school anytime someone gets sick,” Sharfstein says.

What Would Be Safe?

Since March, more than 7,000 children in Florida have been infected with the coronavirus. Nonetheless, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an order on Monday requiring all schools to open “at least” five days a week for instruction, starting next month. Miami-Dade and Broward counties are pushing back, while officials with teachers unions warn the state mandate could be “catastrophic” and “deadly.”

Around the country, districts are announcing lots of different schedules – two days a week of in-person instruction, or three days, or different groups of kids coming in on alternating weeks. The current CDC guidelines recommend keeping kids six feet apart, while the American Academy of Pediatrics is OK with three feet if kids wear masks. Many districts are looking at utilizing bigger spaces such as gyms as classrooms. 

“I think we’re going to have to use spaces that aren’t traditional school spaces, such as recreation centers, open spaces and libraries,” says Tanya Bhasin, a member of the school board in Norfolk, Va. “That can’t be a discussion just among school leaders, it has to involve every policymaking body to decide what our plan is going to be.”

Lots of districts around the country are still at the data collection or task force talking stage. No matter how detailed their plans – and many are extensive – they’re bound to run into complications when they’re tested in the real world, with hundreds of kids occupying buildings. “Some of our buildings don’t have sinks that work,” Bhasin says. “We’re going to need funding to open safely.”

All Options Are Tough

Despite all the difficulties, there’s a widely-shared sense that schools need to open. "Are K-12 schools going to be ready to do remote learning in a high-quality way?" asks Morphew, the Johns Hopkins dean. "No, not from a curriculum, social-emotional or technology standpoint."

Working from home has worked pretty well for adults, but not so much for kids. 

“My kids cannot learn online,” says Betsy Valles, who has two children in Fairfax County, Va., schools. “When they were home from March until June, they learned nothing. It was a disaster. My kindergartener went backwards.”

With teachers reporting for work in some states in less than a month, there’s not much time left to get plans in place and make the necessary changes in scheduling and physical plants.

On the other hand, a month is a long time in the course of the pandemic. The behaviors people engage in today will translate either into reduced or elevated caseloads over the next few weeks. Schools can’t be seen as separate from their communities. “If you tried to open schools right now in Houston, it would be a very bad idea,” Sharfstein says. “Where there are high levels of community transmission, it’s a no-brainer; you don’t open schools. If there’s very little transmission, opening schools with precautions is completely reasonable.”

The trick will be figuring out what to do in all the places in between. The virus has spread throughout the country, although outbreaks have still not been severe in many counties and cases are now on the wane in the Northeast.

When schools shut down back in March, there was hope they could reopen in a week or two. Instead, closures were extended bit by bit, until the school year was gone. There was very little long-term planning. On the eve of a new school year, districts are still scrambling to finalize their plans, hoping for but not able to count on additional help from federal lawmakers. 

For all the attention schools are getting right now, there’s not yet a steady drumbeat of messages from politicians reminding people that if they want schools to reopen safely, they’ll have to take social distancing, masks and other precautions more seriously. “For Arizona to reopen school facilities for in-person learning, we must first get COVID-19 under control,” Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement on Tuesday.

It’s a test of whether the country can accomplish any of the things that need doing, even something that’s a top priority everywhere from ordinary households to the White House.

“If we don’t reduce the community spread of the virus, we’re not going to get back to school,” Bhasin says, “and we need to get back to school in order for our economy to thrive.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects