Going to school, every day, for in-person instruction. It’s what most, if not all, schools want to aim for this fall. But the final form that live school attendance takes may look wildly different from state to state, community to community.
Will it be for all students? Those in the lower grades? Maybe traditional, in-person instruction will need to be reserved for students most at-risk for losing too much ground in their learning: those in special education, children still learning English, and kids from low-income families.
Public health experts think COVID-19 will continue to threaten health and safety until there is a viable vaccine or reliable treatment, which means schools must prepare to open the 2020-21 academic year with social distancing measures and safety protocols. In many cases, that means about 11 to 13 people in a room at the same time.
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.
And one of the biggest hurdles in trying to hew as closely as possible to the traditional school day? Finding the space to fit students and staff when class sizes must be smaller.
That means getting creative with adaptations and modifications in scheduling and operations. Things like longer school days. Or school on Saturdays.
Education Week interviewed more than a dozen district leaders and other experts on what it will take to provide the closest version of a regular school day amid the realities and risks of the pandemic.
In some parts of the country where there’s no coronavirus outbreak, classes may resume as normal, with districts prioritizing healthy hygiene practices, such as frequent handwashing, adding hand sanitizers to classrooms, increasing cleaning and sanitizing of commonly used areas and playgrounds, and discouraging students and staff from sharing and using communal supplies. There are no changes to bus schedules, the length of the school day, or how classes are run.
- Students are back in school with their peers, their teachers, and familiar routines.
- Parents can resume normal work schedules.
- Costs for operating would remain relatively stable.
- Highest risk for exposure and transmission of the virus. This is the riskiest reopening option. If an outbreak occurs, schools will have to shut down and immediately start up remote learning.
Traditional school day with social distancing measures
All students take in-person classes every day, but with everyone spaced at least six feet apart and all staff and some older students wearing masks in accordance with social distancing and public health guidelines.
Schools can repurpose large and collaborative spaces, like gymnasiums, auditoriums, and athletic fields for additional classrooms. Others may purchase or lease temporary modular classrooms.
The goal is to stay as close as possible to the traditional school day, with little interruption in the educational programming. And where space is a real constraint, how you use time can help.
That’s the thinking of Scott Muri, the superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas. One version he’s considering is using the 10 hours between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. to fit in instruction.
Muri said to do so, he would operate buses all day long—like city buses—with groups of students arriving for classes at different times. This will allow students who may have the only jobs in their families to return to school and not have to choose between work and school.
“It could be that kids are moving in and out of school all day long based upon our transportation,” Muri said. “That is going to be a big driver. I would have to start buses at 2 a.m. if I put can only put 10 kids on a bus.”
Even with social distancing and other health and safety precautions, this scenario still carries risks.
For both traditional and traditional with social distancing schedules, schools must follow public health practices guided by their local health departments.
How to make it work:
- District leaders should solicit feedback—through formal surveys or other means from parents, teachers, staff, and students—on the scheduling options they are weighing. Be ready to demonstrate that diverse interests and concerns were seriously considered in deliberations on a final plan.
- Develop clear messaging around the plan—how it will work and why it was chosen. Some parents will be relieved to have a more-normal school experience, but some will be anxious about the health risks.
- Clearly state education goals for the semester or the year, how schools plan to accomplish them, and contingencies if conditions change.
- Educate students and their parents on what to expect when they return, especially with unfamiliar social distancing routines.
- Provide detailed information ahead of reopening about the changes to building layouts and social distancing guidelines to students with disabilities, particularly those with visual and hearing impairments. Allow these students to visit the building before reopening to experience the new setup.
- Limit student movement from class to class, except where necessary for classes that may require hands-on labs and keep students in cohorts across the day. Avoid mixing groups of students.
- Know which teachers and staff feel comfortable returning to the school building and be ready to replace those who may opt out of coming back.
- Create alternative roles for high-risk staff who want to continue working remotely—they can become a remote teaching corps for students whose parents won’t send them back into buildings until the health risks are reduced.
- Enlist the teachers’ union as a key ally to ensure this—and all the other models—work. If the school day needs to be extended or Saturday school becomes necessary to meet the number of state-mandated instructional days, districts will need buy-in from the teachers’ union and others.
What it might look like—the Mount Olive Township School District example
The traditional school day, with built-in social distancing measures, is one of four models that the 4,700- student, six-school Mount Olive Township School District in New Jersey is considering.
Leaders there are in a bit of a bind trying to work with their existing spaces to comply with social distancing guidelines. In the last few years, the district got rid of many of the old-fashioned desks and chairs in favor of collaborative pods that fit five or so students.
Still, here’s how Mount Olive Superintendent Robert Zywicki envisions it:
Early a.m.— Parents receive an early morning text message and robocall reminding them to check their child’s temperature and to keep them home if they have a fever or are sick.
Later a.m.—Small groups of students board their buses—a fleet that must expand as much as 40 percent or run many more routes with existing buses, said Zywicki. Courtesy busing, a service offered to students who live within two miles of their schools, will be eliminated.
Arrival at school—Students and staff will have their temperatures checked daily before they can enter buildings. (Staff members will answer a health screening questionnaire weekly.) Masks will be provided for staff and students—the district plans to use about $300,000 from its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES Act) funding to buy protective supplies.
There will be one-way passing in all hallways to, from, and between classes. Lunch at the high school, which currently has one lunch period, will be divided into shifts. Elementary school students will eat in their classrooms.
Physical education will be taught in small groups. Staff and older students will wear masks for low intensity activities like yoga, but not high intensity activities like running. Younger students won’t be required to wear masks. Band and choir may be nixed in the fall.
After school—So far, after-school activities are still on the table, but they will likely be limited.
The sports calendar will be switched. Non-contact sports like swimming, cross country, tennis, baseball, and golf, which are normally played in the spring, will be rescheduled for the fall. Wrestling and football, which are generally fall sports, will be rescheduled for the spring, assuming COVID-19 is less of a public health threat in the spring 2021.
Staffing—Custodians already working for the district will be directed to clean and disinfect more frequently. Nurses and school secretaries will be trained to conduct contact tracing.
The district has a full-time nurse in every school through a contract with a health agency, an arrangement that predates the pandemic. Zywicki said he will have to secure back-up staffing for those nurses.
Contingencies—Parents may balk at sending their children to school without a vaccine so Zywicki will survey them to find out how many plan to keep their children home. Already, the district is developing an opt-out template, along with alternative instructional plans, like remote learning and independent study. Similar plans will be offered to students who are immuno-compromised or are otherwise at risk for getting sick.
- Students return to in-person instruction and connection with their peers and teachers, the ultimate goal for district leaders.
- District and school leaders can offer more-effective programs to help students recover from learning loss and address their social-emotional and mental health needs.
- Peer-to-peer collaboration is more robust. Teachers see their students daily and deepen connections to help children recover from their negative experiences in the pandemic.
- Parents will have less responsibility for overseeing the daily learning of their children.
- Risk for exposure and transmission of the virus.
- An outbreak can interrupt in-person teaching. With social distancing, space is a constraint and may be impossible in some schools.
- Parents may opt out, too uncomfortable sending their children to school. Districts may have to develop alternatives, such as independent study or remote learning, for those who don’t return.
- Teachers may leave. Some may not return for fear of risking their own health or their loved ones’. Districts will need to think about increasing their pool of substitutes to lead those classes as well as the increased number of classes they will now have because of social distancing guidelines.
- Costs will go up. Districts will have to buy masks and other personal protective equipment for staff and students, gear that is expensive and possibly hard to find. There will be new expenses for cleaning supplies, hiring more custodians, more frequent cleaning and sanitizing in frequently used areas and playgrounds. Districts may have to lease or buy more buses or run more frequent routes, both of which cost more money.
Sources, in alphabetical order: Brett Blechschmidt, chief financial officer, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; Sharon Contreras, superintendent, Guilford County Schools, Greensboro, N.C.; Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association; Eric S. Gordon, CEO, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Cleveland, Ohio; Todd Horenstein, assistant superintendent for administrative services, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; David G. Hornak, executive director, National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE) and superintendent, Holt Public Schools, Holt, Mich.; Mike Magee, CEO, Chiefs for Change; Scott Muri, superintendent, Ector County Independent School District, Odessa, Texas; L. Oliver Robinson, superintendent, Shenendehowa Central School District, Clifton Park, N.Y.; Mike Stromme, deputy superintendent of teaching and learning, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; Steven Webb, superintendent, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; Robert Zywicki, superintendent, Mount Olive Township School District, Mount Olive, N.J.
Documents: “Rising to the Challenge of Covid-19: A Planning Framework for the 2020-21 School Year,” (May 2020), Los Angeles County Office of Education; “Reentry to a New Normal,” (June 2020), Mount Olive Township School District; “Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education,” (May 2020) Maryland Department of Education; “Covid-19 Considerations for Reopening Schools: Initial Guidance for Schools and Districts (May 2020) Kentucky Department of Education; “Considerations for Reopening Mississippi Schools,” (June 2020) Mississippi Department of Education; “Scheduling Concepts for Hybrid Learning,” Aaron Dover, Los Angeles County Office of Education; “Considerations for Schools,” (May 2020) U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention; “A Strong and Healthy Start: Safety and Health Guidance for Reopening Schools,” (June 2020) Vermont Education Agency and Vermont Department of Health; “A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools,” (June 2020) California Department of Education