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Complex Questions About Reopening Schools Remain, Even After White House Guidance

By Evie Blad — April 17, 2020 6 min read
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New White House guidelines on “reopening the country” as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic didn’t increase confidence among education groups that schools would reopen any time soon. And it didn’t answer questions about how schools will have to change their practices to keep students safe after they welcome them back to their buildings.

That’s because the guidelines, which largely focus on businesses, assume that states will have the capability to quickly and easily test people for the highly contagious illness and to trace their contacts to contain its spread. Many governors and health officials have said they don’t yet have the resources for those mitigation efforts, and they’ve traded blame with President Donald Trump about who is responsible.

On Thursday, as the White House document was announced, the nation reached a milestone: More than half of states have now shuttered school buildings for the remainder for the academic year.

And school leaders have largely looked to governors for guidance on school closures, not to the White House. That’s because state leaders were the ones who took action to close school buildings to begin with, even as local school officials pushed for clearer guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to respond to the pandemic.

See: Education Week’s Map of Coronavirus and School Closures

States continued announcing closures Friday, when Trump-friendly Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said schools in the Lone Star State would not reopen for 2019-20. He made that call even as he announced plans to relax some restrictions in areas like state parks, where visitors will be allowed to return April 20 if they wear masks, and retail businesses, which will be allowed to sell items for curbside pickup.

“The team of doctors advising us have determined that it would be unsafe to allow students to gather in schools for the foreseeable future,” Abbott said

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also said students won’t return to schools this school year.

“While I would like nothing more than to open up our schools and classrooms in May, we have to prioritize the health and safety of Iowans,” said Reynolds said.

Even as states extended closures Friday, Trump insisted at a White House briefing that schools would soon reopen.

“But I think the schools are going to be open sooner rather than later,” he said when a reporter asked how Americans would return to work if their children remained home. And I understand and I’ve spoken—some governors are already talking about—thinking about getting the schools opened.”

Uncertainty Remains

Despite the debates about “reopening the country,” Americans generally don’t expect to return to normal any time soon, a new poll finds.

Among the 9 in 10 respondents whose daily routines have been disrupted by the coronavirus, 69 percent do not expect to get back to that routine until after July 1, said the ABC News/Ipsos poll.

Education groups tend to agree.

“I don’t see any path where a school is closed opens” this academic year, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance for AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

And even as many educators assume students won’t return to school buildings until the next academic year, they’ve started to picture what that return might look like and what logistical challenges may await them.

“Normal” might not be possible until there is a vaccine, state leaders have cautioned.

The White House guidelines mirror some plans already announced by governors, including “gating” criteria to govern reopening, like consistently declining rates of flu-like symptoms, drops in documented cases of the coronavirus, and adequate hospital capacity for a possible resurgence of illness. The guidelines call for three phases of reopening for businesses, schools, and workplaces, with school buildings that have been shut down remaining closed in the first phase.

To get to the second phase, a state would have to demonstrate it met those gating criteria twice without a reemergence of the illness. In that phase, schools could reopen, the guidance says. But it includes some caveats. Vulnerable people would have to stay home, and that includes people with asthma, a condition that is already a problem for many children and a huge contributor to school absenteeism.

The guidance also suggests that, more generally, in phase two areas: “Social settings of more than 50 people, where appropriate distancing may not be practical, should be avoided unless precautionary measures are observed.”

What does that mean for schools?

Administrators are already discussing the possibilities: modified bus routes to allow for fewer riders; meals served in classrooms to avoid large crowds in cafeterias; staggered start times to reduce building capacity; and even allowing some children to continue online class work after buildings reopen. All of those accommodations would have to occur as schools tackle making up for lost learning time and deal with likely cuts in state education funds sparked by a recession.

As fall approaches, educators will likely want more specific guidance about how to safely carry out school operations, Ng said.

“Superintendents are not epidemiologists,” she said.

Schools may also face pressures from parents or hesitant staff members to remain closed, administrators say. Opening too quickly would leave them without an adequate plan to address those concerns.

“This will require a level of innovation and creativity,” said Danny Carlson, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Ultimately, I think the take-home message is that principals are not going to feel comfortable having schools come back under unclear guidelines and circumstances.”

American educators may get a glimpse at the future from other countries. This week, Denmark became the first European country to reopen primary schools and child-care centers under modified practices, including plenty of handwashing, closure of staff lounges, and desks in half-full classrooms spread two meters apart, the New York Times reports. Even with those modifications, some parents have refused to send their children back to school.

Governors Face Pressure

In the United States, governors have faced waves of pressure to modify lock-down orders from emerging activist groups that have largely focused on businesses, not schools.

At demonstrations in states like Michigan this week, protesters called on governors to reopen businesses and end stay-home orders, but many of those businesses would not be able to operate at fully capacity if employees have to stay home with out-of-school children. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered schools closed for the rest of the academic year.

Trump threw fuel on the fire Friday when he tweeted in support of demonstrations in states with Democratic governors.

On the other hand, Florida’s teacher’s union also protested Wednesday, encouraging Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, to keep schools closed beyond May 1, the state’s current recommended date to remain closed.

On Thursday, an Orlando Sentinel editorial urged him to commit to closing schools for the remainder of the year.

“When you weigh the risk versus the reward, sending kids, teachers and staff back to schools for a few weeks seems foolhardy and dangerous,” that editorial said.

DeSantis suggested Friday that the new White House guidance would form “a baseline” for his decisions and, in general, the different regions of the state may open on different timelines.

On Saturday, he announced school buildings would remained closed for the rest of the academic year.

Photo: A building-closure sign hangs on the main office window of Robertson Elementary School in Yakima, Wash. in March (Amanda Ray/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)

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