Temperature checks at bus stops, plexiglass walls between desks and no field trips are a few of the rules school districts are planning to implement as a pandemic-weary nation lurches toward reopening schools this fall.
COVID-19 cases among children remain rare in many states, but school districts must address the health risks of employees, including cafeteria workers, bus drivers and teachers, who could come into contact with children showing no signs of the disease. That has set districts on their heels about how to proceed just a few weeks before schools are scheduled to welcome back students.
“I wish I could wave a wand and send all back to school safely and quickly. But unfortunately, it’s not as simple as wearing masks, moving the desks or putting some painter’s tape on the floor to keep students farther apart,” said Superintendent Austin Beutner, announcing this month that the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest, had not decided how to reopen on Aug. 18.
One stumbling block is figuring out how to pay for coronavirus protections that state health departments encourage or require. Many protections mirror recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The School Superintendents Association says each of country’s roughly 130,000 school districts will need at least an additional $1.8 million to implement social distancing measures. Districts will need to buy personal protective equipment for bus drivers and cafeteria workers, stagger schedules to limit the number of students in a building at one time and hire staff to monitor smaller clusters of pupils. That outlay would equal $234 billion.
The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee called Tuesday on Congress to give schools more money to pay for coronavirus prevention measures such as bus monitors, smaller classes and remote learning technology. In March, the CARES Act provided $13.5 billion in grants to K-12 schools.
“The surest step back to normalcy in our country is when 70 to 75 million college and high school and elementary school students go back to school,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “In my view, there is greater risk of not going back to school and the damage it will do to the children and to the parents and to the community.”
Protocols are likely to vary widely among the nation’s school districts, which serve more than 50 million students. In one town, students may be grouped in small clusters separated by plexiglass in the elementary school but allowed to mingle in hallways without social distancing or masks at the high school.
The CDC last month established three tiers of risk for reopening schools, from entirely online learning to full-time face-to-face learning. Accommodations may require students to eat lunch at their desks and bus drivers to wipe down seats after each trip.
Many school districts are gravitating toward the “lowest risk” scenarios. In Fairfax County, Virginia, school officials are offering two options: full-time online learning or a variant with twice-a-week face-to-face instruction.
“Our first preference, of course, remains 100% in-person learning,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand wrote in a letter to parents this month. “However, based on current health data, that seems unlikely by Tuesday, August 25, the first day of the 2020-21 school year.”
Many districts have not signaled whether schools will have in-person classes this fall. In Minnesota, where the increase in new COVID-19 cases has slowed, Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, plans to announce in late July whether to begin classes, which traditionally start after Labor Day.
“As we look forward to the 2020-21 school year in our pre-kindergarten through grade 12 schools, we anticipate that SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — will continue to circulate,” the Minnesota Department of Health said in a report published last week.
Distance and masks
“Now that it is summer, there is, as expected, an almost complete absence of communication amongst staff and families,” Stephanie Wittmer, a kindergarten teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, told The Washington Times.
Ms. Wittmer echoed research showing that distance education widens learning gaps for poorer or minority students, but she acknowledged that heath risks could be too great to return to face-to-face classes.
A report this month from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimated that the nation’s gross domestic product could fall by nearly a half-trillion dollars by 2040 if classroom instruction doesn’t resume until fall 2021. That loss would disproportionately affect Black, Hispanic and low-income students.
Such predictions have emboldened public officials and teachers unions to call for an end to distance learning.
“The switch to remote learning exposed the digital divide in the city, exacerbating the inequities in our education system,” the Chicago Teachers Union said Tuesday after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, announced guidance for reopening the state’s 852 school districts.
Calling for students to “physically return” in the fall, the union also requested a school nurse in every building, personal protective equipment, smaller classes and enhanced cleaning practices.
In Georgia, where COVID-19 cases have been increasing, Forsyth County Schools said the district will give students two options when it reopens Aug. 6: face-to-face or virtual learning. Officials cautioned parents of younger children about the rigors of online learning.
“Families need to understand this will NOT look the same as the virtual experience this past spring,” the school district said last week. “There will be a significant commitment needed by parents/guardians to help facilitate learning virtually.”
In Vermont, which currently has no hospitalizations for COVID-19, state officials are requiring temperature checks before students board school buses and face masks while in transit or in the hallways. Any student with a fever will be sent home.
Health officials note that respiratory droplets released by sneezing or talking remain the mostly likely form of coronavirus transmission. “Face covering maybe challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings such as school,” the CDC said last month.
Meanwhile, school leaders are lamenting another obstacle: politics. Kevin C. Brown, the interim education commissioner for Kentucky, told state superintendents during a virtual meeting this week that students are expected to wear shoes and shirts at school, but a “problem we’re having right now is … we don’t have a societal expectation of wearing a mask, unfortunately.”
Many districts are requiring facial coverings for bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Last spring, a 56-year-old bus driver for Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky, died of COVID-19. In April, Kansas City Public Schools briefly suspended its grab-and-go meal program after a cafeteria worker tested positive for infection from the coronavirus.
Fresh memories of outbreaks and rising cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, Texas and Florida are what concern officials tasked with reopening schools this year. A study last week by the School Superintendents Association said only 6% of 500 superintendents surveyed nationwide said they were ready to announce when their schools would reopen with in-person instruction.
Earlier this month, the National PTA did not call for reopening physical schools but stressed collaboration among parents, students, educators and public health experts in determining how to proceed.
“My perspective as a kindergarten teacher is that if health risks necessitate distance learning, kids are academically resilient and we will be able to make up for academic gaps that result through thoughtful post-pandemic instruction,” Ms. Wittmer said. “Social development seems less resilient.”