COVID-19 and Schools: EdWeek Answers Your Questions
The coronavirus pandemic’s disruption to our lives and schools brings endless waves of risk and unpredictability. Best laid plans can be upended by a single positive case.
As the nation’s K-12 educators, you are making high-stakes decisions and choices that impact the health, safety, and well-being of students, families, and yourselves.
You’ve got many questions. EdWeek wants to help you find the answers.
Below are questions that you have posed to us, organized into topical themes. Our newsroom responds to those questions with links to reporting that provides fuller answers.
You can send us more questions at [email protected].
Jump to a section:
- Health and safety inside schools
- Illness and death
- Costs of operating during a pandemic
- The changing roles of teachers, administrators, and staff
- Schools’ readiness for shifting plans
Q: How can we trust others to do their part and honestly isolate if and when they have symptoms that are not severe and/or that they attribute to a normal cold, allergies, etc.?
Many districts return-to-school plans depend on people following these guidelines, but we know people attend work/send their kids to school when symptomatic of other illnesses. How can we be sure this will be different?
A: Symptoms of COVID-19 like fever can occur anytime from two to 14 days after exposure to the coronavirus, but studies to date suggest up to 90 percent of children under age 18 who get the disease have mild or no symptoms, meaning it is extremely likely that temperature checks will not catch many students who have the illness. This does not mean temperature checks are useless, as studies have so far found school-age children less likely to transmit the disease than adults, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended schools balance the frequency of temperature testing against the likely time it will take away from instruction, in large part because of this high likelihood of false negatives. AAP suggested schools ask parents to fill out home temperature reports and symptom screenings to save time, particularly because children with COVID-19 seem to be more likely to have gastrointestinal symptoms than adults do. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not recommending universal screenings for students and staff. Read more here.
Q: How often do we all need to be tested? Every week? Every two weeks? People lie—give fever-reducing meds—we all get exposed, then what?
A: Experts generally do not think schools should or will have the capacity to use universal COVID-19 tests on students, which, again, would have to be done every few days. Symptom tracking and isolation and contact tracing of students and staff with positive COVID-19 test results seem to be the most common recommendation for schools. The CDC does not recommend that schools conduct COVID-19 tests. Unlike the flu and other contagious illnesses, there’s currently a strong social stigma about having COVID-19 and potentially exposing and transmitting it to others. To help address concerns that parents might risk sending a sick child to school, K-12 leaders should find ways to help them err on the side of caution, such as providing an easy way to receive remote instruction for a day or a few days and referrals for free COVID-19 testing. Also, there’s a strong messaging role for principals to play in communicating constantly about the need for parents not to send a child with fever or other symptoms to school. Read more here.
Q: Will the pressure from our community override the science when it comes to making decisions? Do parents understand what a socially distanced classroom and curriculum will actually look like? Will I overlook something that in some ways risks the health of my students, their families, or my own because I have never been trained in how to keep a classroom sterile? What if we get this wrong? How do I go to work if I can't send my kids to school?
A: Some states have set suggested or mandated thresholds of what the transmission rate of the coronavirus in the area should be before schools reopen their buildings. See states’ reopening guidance to districts here.
A socially distanced school day will be much different than what parents, students, and teachers are used to. Teachers will have to forego hands-on instruction and close collaboration among students. Districts are planning how best to maintain social distance in schools, including through different scheduling models and changes to daily routines. Districts will also have to take extra safety precautions, including increased cleaning and access to face coverings, hand sanitizer, and handwashing opportunities.
With school schedules disrupted, teachers will have to balance teaching and caring for their own children. The Denver school district, which is starting the school year remotely, is offering low-cost child care for its teachers. Some districts that are having most students only go to in-person classes a couple days a week are offering full-time child care for kids who need it, including teachers’ children.
Q: What will be done about the classrooms that have no windows? The floor I teach on has 20 classrooms and not a single window. There are 4 emergency exists, that is it.
A: Studies so far suggest that fresh, outside air is important to limiting the spread of coronavirus; in fact, there is some evidence that air conditioning systems can actually move the virus around farther than it could get on its own from simple talking. School buildings have such a wide array of different HVAC systems that it is difficult to make any one suggestion, but the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers does have guidance for different types of school buildings. In general, for rooms that cannot increase their ventilation using outside air, keeping doors open and reducing the number of people in the room also increases the effective ventilation in the room (another good reason for social distancing). It is also important for districts to consider ventilation when cleaning and sanitizing rooms to reduce coronavirus spread, to avoid aggravating respiratory problems such as asthma. The Environmental Protection Agency has more information on how to approach ventilation in response to COVID-19. Read more about school building air quality and more on classroom crowding and the virus.
Q: What will the governors and superintendents who are so hot to open schools right away do when kids and teachers start dying? The districts near me HAVE NO PLAN.
A: Teachers across the country are frustrated with the many unanswered questions surrounding school building reopenings, including how districts will ensure the safety of students and staff. Many states have given districts leeway to move to a more restrictive learning model during the semester if coronavirus cases increase in their area and conditions become more dangerous. Read more about teachers’ concerns here, and see states’ reopening guidance to districts here.
Q: I'm terrified that I'm going to get COVID-19. I'm 61: can't afford to retire, and I'll have 15-19 high school students in my small room where they can't socially distance.
A: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has recommended that teachers wear masks and eye protection—goggles or a face shield—while teaching to protect themselves. He also said teachers should wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitizer if they don’t have easy access to a sink and consider wearing clothes they can dispose of or wash immediately after work before going home. If a teacher has an underlying health issue that puts them at high-risk for serious illness due to COVID-19, she might be entitled to a reasonable accommodation from her school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some districts are letting high-risk teachers work remotely to teach the students who choose not to return to school. Read more here.
Q: I have so many questions and concerns but mainly what's going to happen if a teacher gets sick?
A: This has been a big question weighing on the minds of teachers as the start of the school year approaches. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act guarantees up to 80 hours of paid sick leave through Dec. 31 if an employee is unable to work because they are quarantining or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. If a teacher needs more sick leave after exhausting that benefit, it will be up to the district whether teachers will need to use their own sick days. District officials will also have to decide if they will temporarily shut down the entire school or just send home the students in the affected class if a teacher tests positive for COVID-19. Read more about teachers’ unanswered questions here.
Q: How are we ensuring that districts are funding the costs of protecting students and that individual teachers are not? They already buy too many supplies.
A: In many states, there is no assurance that districts will cover all costs associated with protecting students and staff from a coronavirus outbreak. States crafted very specific guidance that details all the items districts should purchase to keep student crowding low and school buildings sanitized. But many states did not take the extra step to mandate those requirements. Administrators that run districts that were already fiscally strapped say it will be difficult to purchase all the PPE that health departments say is necessary. Many states in recent weeks have said they will purchase face masks for districts.
Q: Where will funding come from for the extra supplies necessary to ensure student and staff safety? Schools need to reopen, but are states ready to help fund what will be needed as we move forward with the necessary precautions?
A: Many districts will have to pull money from their savings accounts in order to pay for the extraordinary costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic. In some states, including Alaska, Illinois, and Texas, states’ emergency management departments have promised districts to supply schools with face masks. Congress is also debating a bill that would, at least in part, assist schools with reopening costs. The federal government, under the CARES Act, provided districts that serve low-income students with more money to deal with extraordinary costs associated with the pandemic, but much of that money was used to fill states’ budget deficits. Read more here on how much districts may be spending on virus-related equipment and safety measures.
Q: Why are schools not providing hazard pay? I understand my profession is requiring me to take a risk. However, I don't understand why my 10 days of sick pay is all I get even with COVID-19.
A: Pay scales during the pandemic have been renegotiated in several districts since working conditions have changed so drastically. Because districts are bracing for severe budget cuts next year, they might be spending more conservatively this year than they were in years’ past, especially to avoid layoffs of teachers.
Q: Not to sound selfish, but how does my role as principal change in regards to cohorts and being with the kiddos? I can keep my kids as safe as possible, but it changes the educational dynamic of my school.
A: Recommendations, including from the CDC, on how to operate a socially distanced school day make clear that, as much as possible, movement and intermixing of different groups of students and staff should be restricted. That means, for the sake of health and safety, principals should probably avoid moving as freely among classrooms as they do during a typical school year. If they do enter classrooms to observe instruction, they should be fully masked and remain at a physical distance from the teacher and students. Principals who like to greet students upon arrival should be fully masked and physically distanced. As for professional development sessions, principals should take extra caution about scheduling in-person trainings for the adults in the buildings. Two cases in point: A group of California principals who met in person over the summer for fall planning were exposed to COVID-19 and in Georgia’s largest school district, where in-person planning had begun, more than 250 employees were excluded from work due to a positive case or contact with a case. Virtual PD sessions remain the safest option.
Q: Are districts planning to do a hybrid model going to phase it in over time, based on monitoring COVID-19 stats, necessary technology implementation, and teachers being ready to support new health protocols and new instructional pedagogy? Or will districts just 'go for it'?
A: There’s no uniform approach that districts are taking to reopening, even if they are following a hybrid model. Some are starting in remote mode, with plans to begin partial in-person instruction later if COVID-19 infection rates are deemed low enough to be safe for some live attendance. Others are starting in-person instruction on Day One for a priority group of students, such as kindergarten through 5th grades. Education Week is compiling a working list of hundreds of school districts’ reopening plans.
Q: Here in NYC, I'm concerned that schools will plan for one thing ...then someone will get sick in a school, and parents and/or teachers will insist on moving to remote, and the system is not prepared for Plan B. and don't have a Plan C. Teachers, parents, and kids need consistency.
A: Educators learned many lessons from abruptly pivoting to remote learning this spring, and are already preparing to avoid some of those pitfalls by improving students’ at-home connectivity and training teachers for online instruction. Teachers should prioritize using the early weeks of in-person instructional time this school year to get students comfortable using online platforms they’ll need if they go back to learning remotely. Principals and technology leaders can do their part by troubleshooting device issues and creating detailed plans for remote learning so disruption to students is minimal if buildings must close.