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After the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in March, the majority of schools went on to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of the academic year. But now that all 50 states have begun reopening, there’s increasing discussion about how — and if —?schools should resume in-person classes this fall. In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that policy considerations prioritize “having students physically present in school,” and a number of school districts have announced plans to reopen in the fall; meanwhile, in some states, students have already returned to in-person class.
In recently weeks, the debate over reopening has become increasingly contentious as the Trump administration has aggressively pushed for schools to fully reopen, despite soaring infection rates across the country. Will it be safe for schools to reopen in the fall? And what will it look like when they do? Here’s what we know.
When will schools reopen?
A number of states have announced plans to resume in-person classes in the fall, including New Jersey and Connecticut. Most recently, New York governor Andrew Cuomo gave all school districts across the state the green light to reopen in the fall. “By our infection rates, all school districts can open everywhere in the state,” Cuomo said during a news conference on August 7. “Every region is below the threshold that we established.”
However, even in districts that do resume in-person classes, many students will probably not return to school full-time, given that schools are likely to stagger schedules and offer a hybrid of in-person and remote learning in order to limit class sizes and comply with social-distancing recommendations from the CDC. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that while the city is planning to reopen schools in September, most students will attend in person only one to three days a week and continue virtual learning the rest of the time. Under the plan, classrooms will likely have no more than 12 people present at a time, including teachers and aides. School leaders have been instructed to let parents know in August which days their children will attend school. Students will be required to wear masks, which will be provided to them for free. Leaders in Chicago have also said that schools will adopt a hybrid model in the fall, though they have stressed that plans are still tentative.
On July 6, Florida’s Department of Education issued an emergency order requiring all “brick and mortar schools” to open “at least five days per week for all students” in August. The order comes as Florida continues to see record numbers of new coronavirus cases each day. It has received pushback from teachers, who worry that the state is prioritizing economic recovery over the safety of students and staff, and on Monday, teachers unions sued to block the order, claiming that it violates a Florida law requiring that schools be “safe” and “secure.” Texas, another epicenter of the outbreak, had also announced plans to open schools full time in the fall, though Governor Greg Abbott said in mid-July that he would allow districts more flexibility to continue online learning.
However, as infection rates continue to surge across the country, an increasing number of school districts say they will not resume in-person classes in the fall. On July 17, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that 33 of the state’s 58 counties are currently on a “watchlist” —?determined by the rate of infection, hospitalization, and test positivity —?and that schools in those areas will be required to teach online until conditions improve. His announcement came after the news that Los Angeles and San Diego will continue remote-only instruction in the fall. In a joint statement, the districts said, “Those countries that have managed to safely reopen schools have done so with declining infection rates and on-demand testing available. California has neither. The skyrocketing infections rates of the past few weeks make it clear that the pandemic is not under control.” Nashville, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Fransisco, Arlington, Virginia, and Oakland, California, have also said that they will start the school year remotely.
How will schools decide when to reopen?
In recent weeks, President Trump has repeatedly pushed for schools to fully reopen in the fall, and has threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that do not, though many have pointed out that his ability to actually do so is limited. In a recent Tweet, he wrote: “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS.” However, the Times notes that most of those countries reopened schools only after getting their outbreaks under control. For example, Germany, a country of around 83 million, is currently seeing around 600 new cases every day; the U.S., with a population of 328 million, is averaging around 60,000.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos echoed Trump’s sentiments on a recent call with governors, saying that “schools must reopen, and they must be fully operational,” criticizing plans by some districts that would have students in the classroom only a few days a week. On July 16, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, reiterated the president’s position, saying, “When he says open, he means open and full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.”
In his eagerness to get students back in school, Trump has previously argued that the virus doesn’t pose a threat to children. However, medical experts have urged caution. Testifying in front of the Senate in May, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that officials making decisions about school openings should not be “cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects” of COVID-19. Speaking on CNN more recently, Fauci continued to urge caution, though he also noted that keeping schools closed in the fall due to safety concerns might be “a bit of a reach.” Acknowledging that children tend to have mild cases of COVID-19, he said that he thought the approach to reopening would need to vary from place to place, depending on the local rate of infection. “I hesitate to make any broad statements about whether it is or is not quote ‘safe’ for kids to come back to school,” he said.
On June 25, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The AAP noted that evidence shows that children and adolescents are less likely to have severe cases of COVID-19, and that “policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families and the community by keeping children at home.” A recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine came to a similar conclusion, recommending that, wherever possible, younger children and those with special needs should attend school in person.
At a coronavirus briefing two weeks ago, Trump acknowledged that schools in hot spots for the virus may have to delay reopening in person for “weeks.” However, he continued to advocate for reopening, saying “We cannot indefinitely stop 50 million American children from going to school, harming their mental, physical, and emotional development.” He added that reopening is “critical to ensuring that parents can go to work and provide for their families.”
The American Federation of Teachers has said that for schools to safely reopen, there needs to be better testing and tracking for the virus, and schools will need access to personal protective equipment. Acknowledging that adults who work in schools are at greater risk for infection and transmission of the virus —?nearly one third of public schoolteachers are over 50 — the AAP recommends that they maintain a physical distance of six feet from other people as much as possible.
On July 10, after receiving pushback from teachers groups who argued that the health risks for adults who work in schools had not received adequate attention, the AAP released another statement with the nation’s two largest teachers unions, stating that “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgement of local experts,” and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.” This week, the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, said it would support its members if they choose to strike in areas that reopen without adequate safety precautions.
Have any schools already reopened?
Schools in a handful of states, including Tennessee and Georgia, have already reopened their doors — and reports do not bode well for the future of reopening. In the two weeks since Tennessee let school start back up, 50 districts have started teaching, the majority of which has been done in person; as of Wednesday, at least 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported among students and teachers, and two districts have closed. Meanwhile, a recent viral photo out of Paulding County, Georgia, showed students —?many of whom were not wearing face masks — packed in a narrow school hallway on the second day of classes. (The district does not require students to wear face coverings.) According to BuzzFeed News, a number of students and staff at the school have tested positive for the coronavirus. Students in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Indiana are also?starting school this week.
How will schools follow social-distancing guidelines?
Once schools do resume in-person classes, things will — or should — look a lot different than what we’re used to. In May, the CDC released a set of guidelines for schools reopening, which include spacing desks six feet apart, having students eat lunch at their desks instead of the cafeteria, and closing playgrounds and other communal spaces where possible.
The CDC guidelines state that all staff members and children over age 2 should wear cloth masks throughout the school day, and emphasize the importance of daily disinfecting of high touch surfaces and limiting use of shared equipment. Additionally, they recommend screening students and staff for symptoms, and making plans for when people get sick, including short closings to allow for disinfecting.
Many of the CDC recommendations are intended to minimize the number of students and adults in close contact with each other. For example, they recommend keeping the same group of students and staff together —?all day for younger students, and as much as possible for older students. They also suggest staggering school drop off times and having children sit one person per row on school buses.
As evidenced by the viral photo of Georgia students packed in a hallway, some of the recommended social-distancing guidelines are difficult to implement. The AAP acknowledged this in its June 25 statement, saying, “In many school settings, 6 feet between students is not feasible without limiting the number of students.” In such cases, the AAP recommends that schools “weigh the benefits of strict adherence … with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.” Massachusetts has said that schools can reopen with 3 feet of distance between children.
President Trump has denounced the CDC guidelines, calling them “very tough and expensive” as well as “impractical.” In late July, the CDC issued additional guidance more in line with the Trump administration’s position, including a statement titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall,” which advocates for in-person classes and downplays the safety risks. Meanwhile, a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of parents would rather schools delay in-person classes due to the health risks. The numbers were even higher among people of color, who have been infected with and dying from the virus at disproportionate rates.
Public-health experts have said that even once schools do reopen, they should plan for intermittent closures in the event of further outbreaks —?in which case its likely that remote learning would continue. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that he will partner with Bill Gates —?who has a controversial record on education reform —?to “reimagine education,” particularly the role of technology.
Education officials have said that social-distancing measures will be expensive for schools to implement —?and they come at the same time that many school districts are seeing their budgets cut due to the pandemic. The Council of Chief State School Officers estimates that schools will need as much as $245 billion for additional staff and supplies to safely reopen. The federal relief package passed in March allocated $13.5 billion for K-12 education —?less than one percent of total stimulus funds. On Monday, Senate Republicans introduced a new stimulus proposal that allocates $70 billion for schools, though two-thirds of the funding would be contingent on schools opening at least partially in person. Meanwhile, the National Education Association has estimated that without federal aid, the education system will lose 1.9 million jobs.
This post has been updated.