6 Ways to Bring Students and Staff Back to Schools

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Assuming school buildings reopen this fall, it won’t be business as usual.

Public health authorities—including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—recommend that schools maintain six feet of social distancing in classrooms and in common areas, such as hallways and cafeterias. This will be difficult, if not impossible, in many crowded school buildings, without some radical adjustments to school operations. Transportation limitations will also drive scheduling decisions.

For many school leaders, a hybrid approach of both in-person and remote instruction makes the most sense—but there are many ways that could work. There are pros and cons to every approach, and the flexibility districts have to alter their schedules may depend on state requirements.

To help district and school leaders make these high-stakes decisions, Education Week spoke to more than a dozen experts, including public health officials, education leaders, and superintendents, to determine a list of a half-dozen potential models, some of which could be used simultaneously.

1. Phased Reopening

How it works: Schools bring back only some students at first to avoid crowding buildings and make it easier to adhere to social distancing. For instance, schools could welcome back only one or two grade levels, while students in other grades continue to learn remotely. As conditions with the virus improve, schools can gradually welcome more students until they reach full capacity.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Read Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day

Another version: School buildings initially open one day a week, with students continuing to learn remotely the other four days. Students would be divided into groups, either alphabetically or based on grade level, and be assigned to come on a specific day. The number of days a week that students are physically in school could gradually increase as the risks to health decrease in local communities.

Pros: Helps build the confidence of students, parents, and staff as they gradually return to school—and allows schools to more easily scale back operations if there’s another wave of the virus later in the school year.

Cons: Deciding who comes back first won’t be easy. There are competing arguments about whether younger grades or older grades should be the first to return. On one hand, virtual learning can be harder to provide for young students than it is for older students, and younger children might benefit more from being in the classroom with their teachers and peers. On the other, older students are more likely to follow the rules of social distancing. Experts suggest that district leaders consult with their local health departments to guide this decision. Childcare will also initially be a challenge for working parents.

2. Multi-Track System

How it works: Schools operate on a track schedule, with groups of students in school buildings on different days and engaging in remote learning when they are home. For example, one cohort of students comes to school on Mondays and Wednesdays, another cohort comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and everybody stays home on Fridays.

Another version: Schools divide students into A, B, and C groups, and have students take classes in-person every third day. In this model, special education students, English-language learners, and other vulnerable children like homeless students attend classes in person every day.

Pros: Keeping buildings empty on Fridays allows for regular, deep cleaning without disruption to teaching and learning. Ensuring that the students who need more in-person instruction can be in schools every day addresses a lot of big equity concerns.

Cons: Some families may object to allowing only certain students to attend school daily. This also poses a childcare challenge for working parents.

3. Staggered Schedules

How it works: Half of students come to school in the morning while the other half comes in the afternoon. Schools divide the students based on grade levels or alphabetically, in order to keep siblings on the same schedule.

Pros: Schools avoid some bottlenecks, including arrival, departure, and lunchtime. Morning-shift students could grab an individually packaged meal on their way home. All students would get in-person instruction daily.

Cons: This might not be as workable for schools with large student enrollments. It’ll be challenging for parents with full-time jobs to manage the times of day when their children aren’t in school.

4. Bubble Strategy

How it works: The same group of students stays together for all or most of the day, with the same teacher or teachers.

Students remain in a single classroom all day, even for lunch. If needed, different teachers rotate into the classroom while the students stay put. Younger students might forego electives, like art or physical education, or those teachers provide a lesson to the homeroom teacher. Students might also take those elective classes online, at home.

Pros: This is the CDC’s recommended approach. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the exposure to possible infection is limited to a smaller group, and contact tracing is easier to conduct.

Cons: Students are confined to a single space for extended periods. Classrooms may not be large enough to accommodate social distancing measures if the school’s entire student body is in the building at once.

5. Cyclical Lockdown Strategy

How it works: School buildings regularly alternate between being open and closed, with students staying home for a minimum of 10 days during closure periods. Students attend school one full week, followed by two weeks of remote learning at home.

Another version: Students come to school Monday through Thursday, and then learn from home on Friday and all days of the following week.

Pros: Research says this schedule would allow the virus to reach peak infectiousness during “at-home” weeks. While symptomatic carriers of the virus can be infectious for longer than 10 days, the symptoms would be detected while people are under lockdown, so they and other members of their household can remain isolated or self-quarantined. It may help limit unscheduled disruptions caused by a positive case or wider outbreak in the community.

Rob Miller, the superintendent of Bixby Public Schools near Tulsa, Okla., is leaning toward this strategy for the fall, although he won't make a final decision until closer to the start of the school year. He thinks it would mitigate exposure of the virus in the community, keep students academically engaged, and give families some predictability.

The local health department put it to him this way, Miller said: “It’s virtually a guarantee that school in the first semester of next year will be disrupted. It’s how do we want it to be disrupted?” He also thinks this approach will ease some of the pressures of social distancing, and schools can operate somewhat normally—with protective safety measures in place, such as masks for staff members and increased handwashing—during “on weeks.”

Cons: Students will spend more time in remote learning environments than in school buildings receiving in-person instruction. For working parents with younger children, childcare may be challenging to arrange on such an unconventional schedule.

6. Year-Round Schedule

How it works: The school divides students into groups—one cohort attends school for a set period, roughly nine weeks, while the other cohorts participate in remote learning. The groups would rotate at the end of each period. Breaks from schooling would be more frequent, but shorter than the traditional 10-week summer vacation.

Pros: This keeps students from falling behind academically with no extended breaks from formal teaching and learning. Builds in scheduling buffers for times when buildings must shut down due to positive cases of COVID-19, as well as more frequent opportunities for deep cleaning.

Cons: There’s a strong constituency for summer vacation, and pushback to a year-round calendar—even temporarily—could be strong in some communities. Getting siblings on the same schedules can be a logistical challenge. Districts in states that have mandatory start and end dates typically need a waiver for this schedule, although some states have already offered flexibility for the 2020-21 school year.

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