In-person classes, online learning or a mix? Reopening schools will bring new struggles

With the next academic year less than three months away, and no end in sight

With the next academic year less than three months away, and no end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic, school districts face a daunting decision: Reopen the schools they shuttered, or continue to teach students remotely?

Educators across the United States are weighing their options, taking into account the quality of the education they can offer, the need for children to socialize and keeping safety in mind above all else.

So far, a hybrid model that combines some in-person learning and some remote learning has emerged as the most popular proposal for the fall, according to Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, an advocacy organization for the 14,000 superintendents in the U.S.

That could mean a school has as little as 25 percent of its normal capacity in the building at once, which would give students more space for social distancing in their classrooms and in the hallways. Or schools might bring back as many as 50 percent of students and staff at one time — something Broward County, Florida, envisions with the hybrid model it has proposed for its school year starting Aug. 19.

How, exactly, schools will stagger students’ schedules is up to individual districts, and whichever group is not in the building at a given time will continue the curriculum remotely.

But with so many unknowns still, a lot of school districts are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Schools in Virginia are closely monitoring COVID-19 cases before deciding what the fall semester will look like, but have indicated they will do the blended format of in-person and online learning initially — prompting protests from parents in at least one county who want more face-to-face instruction. Last week, health and education officials in Minnesota announced that if state COVID-19 metrics “continue to stabilize and/or improve,” schools could reopen in the fall without strict social distancing guidelines. Texas, meanwhile, plans to have all students return to their school buildings, even as cases in that state spike.

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Any option that involves students entering a physical space is certain to be loaded with hurdles — from how to keep them 6 feet apart from one another on the school bus to making sure they are using hand sanitizer, plus adequately stocking their classrooms with cleaning supplies.

“This is going to be a very, very difficult and challenging school year,” said Domenech, whose organization on Friday released a 50-page set of guidelines for reopening schools. “There’s not much time to plan, particularly when you don’t know what to plan for.”

How a mix of online and in-person learning might look

The hybrid model is not a one-size-fits-all plan. In Virginia, for example, state guidelines urge in-person instruction to be offered first to preschool through third graders and to English-language learners.

And in North Carolina, the state is mulling complex variations that range from students spending half the day at school and half at home to students being in school on alternating days or weeks. The state plans to announce by July 1 whether it will continue remote learning, send all students to school full-time or do some combination of the two.

But even with detailed proposals for the fall, school districts still face a slew of uncertainties, namely how they will pay for whatever scenario they end up going with. An analysis by the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials found that on average, a school district could spend up to an additional $1.8 million to reopen school buildings when factoring in the costs of health monitoring, cleaning, protective equipment and additional staff.

That’s a tall order for strapped school districts at any time, but particularly in an economic downturn.

“Districts are looking at significant cuts in their budget, and wondering where the money will come from,” Domenech said. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and the biggest fear is they’re going to be forced to open schools without the safety guidelines.”

Cash-strapped school districts are “caught between a rock and a hard place, and the biggest fear is they’re going to be forced to open schools without the safety guidelines.”

While children have generally had more mild symptoms from the coronavirus than adults, there have been some severe and even fatal pediatric cases. And there are concerns over a rare, new and potentially serious condition, called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, that appears to be linked to the coronavirus.

Fears of children becoming critically ill from a coronavirus outbreak at school — or of a child transmitting the coronavirus to a vulnerable family member — have spooked parents. Six out of 10 said they would be likely to pursue remote learning instead of sending their children back to school next year, according to a USA Today/Ipsos poll from May.

The concern is not just for the students and their families: With no vaccine or reliable treatment yet, teachers and staff are also at risk, particularly those of advanced age or those with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. In another USA Today/Ipsos poll, 1 in 5 teachers said they were unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopened in the fall.

But many parents desperately want to send their kids back to class. And experts worldwide — including more than 1,500 pediatricians in the United Kingdom — say a return to in-person learning is the best path forward.

“Children need to go back to school,” said Dr. Kathryn Edwards, an infectious diseases specialist and professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine who is on an advisory committee with the board of education in Nashville, Tennessee, that is helping the school system to safely reopen schools. “Children benefit greatly from school: They’re educated, a number of children get at least two meals at school so they are not hungry, and also, there are situations where schools are a way to detect neglect and abuse situations.”

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Some other countries have already reopened schools, including Austria, Denmark and Germany, which have not seen a notable uptick in COVID-19 cases since. But in Israel, dozens of schools had to shutter after students returned in May because outbreaks emerged.

Taryn Southard, a second grade teacher seen here with her son, Cassian, and daughter, Isla.
Taryn Southard, a second grade teacher seen here with her son, Cassian, and daughter, Isla.

Taryn Southard, a second grade teacher in Portland, Maine, worries that she, her students or their families could get sick if everyone returns to school. But teaching remotely has had its downsides.

She had just started to make progress with some of her students, most of whom do not speak English as their primary language, when the abrupt switch to remote learning happened. Seeing her second graders attempt to keep up with the demands of school from home — where many live below the poverty line and do not have a stable environment — highlighted the already existing disparities among them.

“At home, you’re really fighting a lot of different things,” she said, adding that one of her students was homeless and trying to stay on top of his schoolwork while his family shuttled among various friends’ houses.

Some of her students, she said, had parents who could not help with school because they did not speak English or had to go to work during the pandemic. Other students had to vie against their siblings for computer time to complete their assignments.

“This is 100 percent a traumatic event, even under the best of circumstances, for kids at home.”

“This is 100 percent a traumatic event, even under the best of circumstances, for kids at home,” Southard said.

Domenech urged all school leaders to involve parents, teachers, staff and students in the discussions they are having about how the fall will look “so people don’t have the expectation of school opening business as usual, when that’s not going to happen anywhere.”

“The No. 1 priority has to be that whatever’s done is done safely,” he said. “And if that means that remote learning has to continue for a large section of the population, then that’s what needs to happen.”

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