How Schools Are Preparing for the Perfect Storm of Holiday Travel and COVID-19

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| Corrected: November 17, 2020
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Rapidly rising coronavirus cases nationwide and upcoming holiday travel plans could be the perfect storm to trigger COVID-19 spikes among students and teachers. That possibility is putting principals, school district leaders, and state officials in the difficult spot of telling families what they should do during the holidays, but without the power to enforce that guidance.

“It’s not my place at all to tell them they can’t go out of town. It’s a free country,” said Mike Lubelfeld, the superintendent of the Northshore School district 112 in Highland Park, Ill., near Chicago. He’s crossing his fingers that families follow state and local guidelines to quarantine if they do decide to travel for the holidays.

But, he admits, it’s all on the honor system. “I’ve still gotta believe in the good of people and their integrity,” Lubelfeld said. The district used a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning for most of this school year, but moved to full-time remote learning a few weeks ago due to a spike in local cases in the community. Lubelfeld is hoping the district returns to the hybrid approach soon.

Associations representing principals and district leaders say their members are nervously eyeing the end of November, when the holiday season kicks off in earnest.

“School districts don’t have the authority” to tell parents to quarantine their children, said Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “And if they did, how would they enforce it? That’s an ability they don’t have. Generally, most parents are very respectful and mindful of what the schools tell them needs to be done. But there will be some that won’t.”

The National Association of Secondary School Principals had a similar take.

“Most districts have clear guidelines for when a student should remain out of school, particularly after traveling. But the guidelines have no real teeth,” said Bob Farrace, a spokesman for NASSP.

That inability of schools to enforce travel and visitation guidelines prompted West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, to take the unusual step last week of extending Thanksgiving vacation for schools an additional three days to help curb the spread of the virus as families return from holiday celebrations.

“We all know that families are going to come together over Thanksgiving, and as families come together, we all know the probability of more of a spread is right at our fingertips again,” Justice said in a statement. “So, from Thursday of Thanksgiving, until the next Thursday, no one will go to school.”

‘Model Your Expectations’

One school district in Vermont is taking that more cautious approach much farther, according to Seven Days, a weekly newspaper in the state. The school district, Two Rivers Supervisory Union, announced it was moving to full-time remote learning, beginning after the Thanksgiving break and extending to Jan. 11. Students in the school district are currently attending school four days a week in person, and one day remotely, according to the newspaper.

The Vermont Department of Health issued a “Holiday Travel Toolkit for Schools” on its website that outlines guidance on travel-related questions, such as: “How will you quarantine when you return? Can you be flexible and cancel your trip last-minute in case someone in your family is sick? Do you live with someone at higher risk or are you visiting someone who is higher risk?”

School districts should make sure that parents and guardians are aware of such local and state guidelines, said Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale University. Some states require people traveling out-of-state, especially to hot zones, to quarantine when they return.

And they should educate parents about what a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases would mean for a school district.

“It really is about following state-mandated practices and for the school to be educating families on levels of risk,” she said. “I would hate for online learning to be mandated because of an outbreak at a school.”

School district leaders whose students are currently attending school in person either full- or part-time are honing their messaging about the importance of following state and district guidelines. The bottom line: If students stay safe and healthy, schools will be able to continue serving students in person.

“We’ve stopped short of prescribing to people how they operate their lives, who they should be inviting to Thanksgiving,” said Jesse Welsh, the superintendent of the Paradise Valley school district in Arizona, which is offering both in-person and online instruction. Instead, he’s relied on “general reminders [that] this is something we have to work on together.”

Brian McCann, the principal of Joseph Case High School in Swansea, Mass., is planning to “lead by example.” He’s made a point of telling families and staff members that his own holiday meal will be a much quieter affair than usual, with just his wife and two of his three children.

“This is a Thanksgiving like no other for me,” he said. “I’m not going to be with 30 people in rooms in a house. You need to model your expectations.”

Making Big Adjustments

Other school districts say they are likely to make big adjustments for the holidays.

Daniel Bittman, the superintendent of ISD 728 in Elk River, Minn., which serves 14,000 students, has seen a spike in cases locally and is moving to minimize in-person instruction, starting Nov. 16, ten days before Thanksgiving.

The district’s middle and high school students had been coming into school buildings twice a week, and elementary youngsters attended classes in person every day. But this week, the older students will be learning remotely full-time and the younger kids will have a mix of in-person and remote learning.

He believes that if the district didn’t limit the number of students coming to school before and after Thanksgiving and Christmas, there could be a spike in cases beginning in the new year.

“We’re seeing significant surges after any break from school,” Bittman said.

Bittman is particularly worried that soaring cases of the virus would mean major staff absences. For instance, on a recent day, the district had 79 assistants who work with students with special needs who were out because they had either come down with the virus or were quarantining because they had come into contact with someone else who had. And there are not enough substitutes available to cover people in those positions, a problem that could be compounded after holiday travel, Bittman said.

‘Make Good Decisions’

Holiday travel this school year is especially complicated for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, an education service agency that works with more than 40 suburban school districts near Pittsburgh. The agency provides special education services as well as early-childhood and professional development programs.

The education service agency operates three schools that serve students with some of the most complex special education needs, including children who have autism, emotional disturbance, and children who aren’t able to communicate without the help of technology. For many of those kids, returning to in-person learning was essential in order for them to receive services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and help with language, vision, and hearing, said James Palmiero, assistant executive director of special education and pupil services for the agency.

But he pointed out that other students are medically fragile. And the district was concerned about them being in the mix, so most of those kids are learning entirely virtually this school year.

“We can’t mandate it, but we’re strongly encouraging” families to quarantine if they are coming back from a hotspot, said Aaron Skrbin, the agency’s director of safety and security. He emphasized that not all holiday travel is created equal. It’s one thing to travel to Florida, he said, and go to Disney World, eat at restaurants, and go shopping on Black Friday. It’s quite another to go to a grandparent’s house for three days and then go straight home.

The agency contemplated asking all students to do remote learning for two weeks after a holiday period. But “that consideration was dismissed because there’s no way of guaranteeing that students, families, and staff wouldn’t be using the time for additional travel,” Palmiero said.

Debra Pace, the superintendent of the Osceola County school district near Orlando, Fla., is emphasizing quarantining for students who travel with their families during the holidays as well as the importance of wearing masks and sticking to social distancing even during gatherings with relatives or friends.

Pace is also relieved that cruise ships aren’t operating in Florida now. Back in March, as the coronavirus was just beginning to spread, some teachers went on short cruises during spring break. When they came back, there was an outbreak among staffers at the middle school where those educators worked.

“You have to count on people to make good decisions to keep ourselves and each other safe,” Pace said. “We’re counting on people to make good decisions outside of school.”

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Correction: 
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Jesse Welsh's gender. He is a man.

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