What needs to happen for schools to reopen?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump last week urged the nation’s governors to “seriously consider” reopening schools as part of a larger push to revive the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the president’s prodding, most of the schools in the United States will remain closed for at least several months. A total of 45 states and Washington, D.C., have ordered or recommended school building closures through the end of the academic year and shifted their focus to possibly resuming in-person instruction in the fall.

The impact of shifting to distance learning has been significant. Students, especially those in vulnerable groups, are missing out on important academic and social development. Meanwhile, many parents are unable to work without a reliable place to send their kids every day. Experts agree that reopening schools will be one of the most important steps in getting the country back to normal.

Why there’s debate

Optimistic forecasters suggest schools will be able to safely reopen on time in the fall, though day-to-day instruction will likely look very different. A vaccine won’t be widely available for another year at the very earliest, health experts say, meaning the coronavirus will be a threat through the entirety of the next school year. Most models for a return to instruction call for social distancing measures to protect students, teachers and parents at home from infection. Suggested changes include limiting class sizes to keep desks far apart, staggered schedules to limit the number of kids on campus and a blend of online and in-person learning.

The next few months will also provide important data on the viability of reopening schools. There’s significant evidence that the virus poses less risk to young children than adults. Some epidemiologists say there’s reason to believe kids are also less likely to pass it on to others, though there’s not enough research to know for sure yet. The U.S. will also learn a lot about the impact of reopening from schools in other countries, some of which are already bringing students back.

Others point to a long list of logistical hurdles that need to be resolved before schools can open. The biggest challenge will be lack of resources, some argue. Many of the country’s 13,000 school districts were struggling to operate before the pandemic, a problem that will only be exacerbated amid the economic downturn caused by the virus. Without proper funding, there won’t be enough space or staff available to enact distancing measures, some administrators argue. Any plan to return will also need to be approved by the teachers unions. The biggest unions in the United States have already suggested they would strike if proper safety measures weren’t in place when schools return.

Another point of view suggests schools should only reopen when testing is widely available and technology to effectively track outbreaks is in use, even if that takes well beyond the start of the next school year.

What’s next

A number of national education associations have banded together to lobby Congress for $200 billion to prop up state budgets and ensure that schools have the resources to reopen safely. Funding for states is expected to be a major point of debate as lawmakers in Washington consider yet another massive stimulus bill in the coming days and weeks.

Perspectives

Distancing measures need to be put in place

“Whenever students do come back, classes are unlikely to look anything like the school days they remember. There may be staggered half-day classes or one-day-on, one-day-off schedules so desks can be spread out and buses can run half-empty.” — Shawn Hubler, Erica L. Green and Dana Goldstein, New York Times

Schools shouldn’t open until testing is widely available

“Like so much else right now, the opening of schools seems to depend most of all on the availability of testing, either at the community or school level, on a scale that seems impossible as long as the Trump administration fails to act.” — Dan Froomkin, Salon

There may be a mix of in-person and online learning

“It might be easier to do one month on, one month off. It might be easier, in some cases, to do a semester online, a semester in class. There are a lot of complications that need to be thought through in the process.” — former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein to Yahoo News

The decision needs to be about what’s best for children, not the economy

“If you think you’re going to keep kids 6 feet apart during the course of a school day, you’re dreaming. It almost shows a disregard for the safety of kids, because what seems to be the most important element here is that schools be open to serve their childcare function, so that parents can get back to work.” — American Association of School Administrators executive director Dan Domenech to USA Today

There are many hurdles that need to be cleared before schools return

“The ideas being considered will require political will and logistical savvy, and they are already facing resistance from teachers and parents. They’ll also require money, and lots of it, at a time when a cratering economy is devastating state and local budgets, with plunging tax collections and rising costs.” — Laura Meckler, Valerie Strauss and Joe Heim, Washington Post

The decision will be made on a state-by-state basis

“Remarkably, there appears to be little discussion taking place in Washington about when and how to reopen our public schools. This mammoth challenge may fall upon governors — to pick up the slack and protect the health of students and staff, and to ensure that a generation of children is not denied their shot at the American dream.” — Mario Ramirez and Andrew Buher, CNN

Schools need to be ready to help kids recover from the disruption of so much time away

“If education leaders do not use the time while schools are closed to aggressively increase our schools’ capacities to personalize and accelerate learning for all students, especially our most vulnerable, then our schools will be overwhelmed in the fall, and our teachers will be forced to make heartbreaking triage decisions about which students can be caught up, and which are too far behind.” — Laura Boyce, Philadelphia Inquirer

Schools should be one of the first things reopened

“Closing schools may bring some benefit in slowing the spread of the disease, but less than other measures. Against this are stacked the heavy costs to children’s development, to their parents and to the economy. … As countries ease social distancing, schools should be among the first places to unlock.” — Economist

More evidence that kids don’t spread the virus could accelerate the process

“SARS-CoV-2 has only circulated in human populations for a few months, and much remains to be learned about its transmission and prevention. But already there is substantial reason to suspect that young children are not major contributors to the COVID-19 epidemic and may not need to be kept from school any longer.” — epidemiologists Jay S. Kaufman and Joanna Merckx, National Post (Canada)

Younger children should be the first to go back

“Unless parents want to live for years without in-person schooling while researchers try to come up with a vaccine, there will have to be some way to enact a gradual return. It makes sense to start with the population whose absence from school has the most acute effect on learning, places the largest burden on working parents, and has the least obvious risk from a public health perspective.” — Philip Klein, Washington Examiner

Leaders need to acknowledge that the harm of distance learning outweighs the benefits

“Reopening schools in September will be a daunting challenge. In the best of circumstances, there will be a degree of risk, given that a coronavirus vaccine is unlikely to be available by then and another flu season will be upon us. Educators will have to revamp every aspect of daily school life, creating a new normal. But to call remote learning an acceptable alternative is to grade it on a generous curve.” — editorial, Chicago Sun-Times

Teachers unions must sign off on any plan to reopen

“Teachers unions are warning that sending educators into crowded buildings without widespread testing for coronavirus will amount to an unacceptable risk.” — Kalyn Belsha, Chalkbeat

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images