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The Lost Spring: Coronavirus Shuts Down Nearly Every School for Academic Year

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 24, 2020 3 min read

The vast majority of states have closed their school buildings for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year—an unprecedented event in the history of American education that raises a host of difficult new questions for school leaders.

How can they refine remote learning to be more effective for the next six to eight weeks? How can they continue to support students’ academic and social needs, especially as unemployment ramps up pressures on their food systems? Is there any way to bolster summer learning?

And there’s a deeply philosophical question—perhaps an ultimately unanswerable one—about what is left of school systems, the communities they anchor, and the thousands of points of contact between students, families, and teachers when that delicate web is disrupted so suddenly, and for so long.

The phenomenon is so unique that there’s really no roadmap for how districts and states should proceed.

According to Education Week’s ongoing tally, by late Friday, 43 states and four U.S. territories, comprising some 45 million students, had ordered or recommended schools to close for the academic year. Others are expected to join in the coming days.

There is some nuance in these numbers. North Dakota and American Samoa are technically closed “until further notice,” rather than until the end of their respective academic terms. And in a half-dozen states where closures are recommended, including Florida and California, districts could choose to reopen before the end of the year, though it’s doubtful any will.

In the main, the news means that nearly all students will be finishing off 2019-20—and graduation, prom, and the other markers of the end of the school year—remotely.

Among the big challenges that will continue in this indefinite period of disruption to learning:

What About Re-Opening?

Adding to the complications is that there’s no clear direction about how schools should reopen. Signs on the horizon suggest the approaches could be even more scattered, haphazard, and dependent on local context than the wave of closings.

For one thing, states have taken varied approaches to reopening businesses and shops, which could ultimately extend to their schools. (A few states that have already loosened up restrictions on businesses, as in Florida and Georgia, aren’t yet moving to do so for schools.)

The coronavirus’ spread in the United States has been uneven, and some states in the Midwest are going to hit the crest of the pandemic weeks—and possibly months—after others, which would likely affect their plans to reopen.

There’s also no firm scientific consensus yet about whether—or for how long—those who contract the virus might remain immune from it.

Given all that messiness, it’s unlikely we will see a “light switch” reopening of most schools all at the same time.

In fact, there’s a lot to suggest that online learning could continue well into the fall—and that when students return to their physical buildings, it will look a lot different than before. Photos from Denmark show one possible new reality: Smaller class sizes with students sitting six feet apart.

Replicating that in the United States would probably require students to return under a staggered schedule, and possibly the hiring or provision of more teachers and substitutes. But even contemplating and planning for those scenarios hinges so much on having resources to pull them off—and the outlook for school budgets has never been so bleak.

As we enter the next phase of the coronavirus’ effects on K-12 learning, Education Week stands ready to help you understand the details and formulate the answers. You will find all of our ongoing coverage of the coronavirus and education in this collection, and state-by-state updates on the status of closings and openings on this page, refreshed daily.

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