June 12, 2020 -- Even though many schools only recently released students from their virtual schools for summer break, many parents and teachers are waiting to hear whether their local school districts will reopen in the fall and what that will look like.
School officials are discussing several scenarios, including opening schools to all students, alternating the days that groups of students are physically at school to promote distancing while having e-learning days at home, or combining onsite and online instruction. Another option is to keep schools closed and continue solely with online instruction, which recent polls show a significant number of educators would prefer.
Most states are allowing local school districts to decide whether they can follow the state’s guidelines for reopening based on recommendations from the CDC. Many states are also surveying parents for input into the planning process.
The CDC guidelines encourage schools to take students’ and staff’s temperatures daily, keep students and desks 6 feet apart, require masks/face coverings, close off common areas such as cafeterias and playgrounds, and regular cleanings. The CDC suggests that mask wearing be limited to older students, as younger children may not be able to keep them on.
Meanwhile, a growing number of states that continue to lift general restrictions, including North Dakota, Virginia, Illinois, and Texas, have announced that in-person summer programs can start. In Virginia, small groups of younger students, pre-kindergarten to third graders, English learner students, and those will special needs will be able to return to in-person instruction sooner than others.
James Lane, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, says these groups should have priority because they had the greatest challenges with remote learning. Phase 3 would allow clubs, extracurricular activities, and certain sports with low levels of contact to resume if students can still socially distance, according to the state’s phase 2 announcement.
Last week, Pennsylvania announced that elementary and secondary schools can resume in-person instruction beginning July 1, and California’s governor has suggested that the next academic year could start as early as July.
In addition, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a controversial law last month requiring all public schools to reopen Aug. 17. Educators and families across North Carolina are still awaiting state guidance on how to reopen schools safely and are unsure whether they will need permission from the General Assembly to use nontraditional learning options like alternating days or remote-only schooling.
School superintendents in other states worry that their legislatures will take similar actions. “Schools should not be forced to open if they can’t adhere to the CDC guidelines. Otherwise, what happens when children or a staff member gets sick and possibly dies? If that happens, the liability factor is enormous -- those are the options schools are left with unless they continue with distance learning,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association.
The World Health Organization also advises school officials to consider how COVID-19 is transmitted among children, how severe it is, and whether it has spread where the school is located. Though younger people are less likely to die or be hospitalized from the virus, they can still have a serious illness -- as underscored by recent reports of a rare, life-threatening inflammatory syndrome in children.
Even with physical distancing and hygiene measures in place, 9 of 11 students attending an elementary school in Montreal were recently infected with the coronavirus, forcing the classroom to close. Two children who had been attending a primary school in England also tested positive for COVID-19, leading to extra precautions.
Digital Learning Curve
Families and teachers had a technology learning curve when all public schools switched to online learning -- and that will continue if schools stick with remote learning.
The online learning adjustment was greatest for younger students, especially if both parents worked outside the home. “Some children were not used to being self-directed and lacked the discipline to sit there. They were also struggling emotionally -- the opportunities to talk with teachers, counselors, and peers disappeared during the pandemic,” says Leila Kubesch, who teaches English to seventh and eighth graders, and accelerated Spanish to eighth graders, at Norwood Middle School in Cincinnati, OH.
Parents also say their children miss the structure the classroom provides and interaction with teachers and classmates. “Because the teachers are so busy preparing lessons constantly, they have far less ‘face time’ with students virtually than the typical 30 hours they spend weekly in the classroom,” says Andrea Jensen Wader, a parent and president of the Fremont Elementary School PTA in Long Beach, CA.
But a recent poll found that more than half of parents say they would consider home schooling rather than send their children back to school.
Online teaching definitely is not as effective as in-person teaching, says Susan Jacobs Churchill, a paraeducator who supports reading and math teachers at Judith A. Resnik Elementary School in Gaithersburg, MD, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Still, she says her 13-year-old son seems to be thriving with the online approach.
“But, we’re spending 30-45 minutes a day in class with students on one subject, compared to spending 90 minutes on two subjects a day when we’re in-person. So, children are not learning nearly as much,” says Churchill.
Grades slipped for some of Kubesch’s middle schoolers this past quarter. “Because we don’t know why that is -- it could be an equity issue such as lack of internet access -- no-one will receive a failing grade.”
Since remote learning may be here to stay, some teachers plan to use the summer to improve their online teaching skills. “I plan to spend the summer becoming a Google Certified Educator in Level 1 and 2 so I can offer students more ways to learn besides videos,” says Kubesch.
School Budgets Slashed
The challenges of reopening -- or not -- come as many school districts are bracing for budget cuts. States are facing huge budget shortfalls, with high unemployment claims and lost sales- and income-tax revenues due to the pandemic.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced last month that about $19 billion would be slashed from schools over the next 2 years. Superintendents in the state’s six largest school districts -- including Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach -- wrote lawmakers saying they need more, not less, funding and warned that the revised budget could delay their reopening, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We cannot in good conscience risk the health and safety of our students and staff by returning to the classroom prematurely and without funding for the necessary precautions, given the continued lack of a national testing program and a lack of clear understanding of the impacts of coronavirus on young people,” the superintendents say in the letter.
Since schools closed in March, districts have had new costs for online learning resources, meals, cleaning, and personal protective equipment. They expect more money will be needed in the coming academic year “to mitigate learning loss and add staff like nurses and mental health professionals,” according to the Times.
The need for federal funding is acute in lower-income districts like Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, KY, which has about 100,000 students. Before the pandemic hit, the district had few school nurses; a teacher and teacher substitute shortage; one mental health counselor per 1,000 children; and overcrowded school buses, according to Rhonda Blandford, a retired nurse, parent, and communications chairwoman of Kentucky's 15th District Parent Teacher Association (PTA).
“We were in debt as a city before the pandemic. The city may have to declare bankruptcy if we don’t get federal funding,” says Blandford, who has two teenage daughters who have been attending public schools.
Meanwhile, some districts around the country have already started furloughing and even laying off some employees, according to The Washington Post. In a letter to congressional leaders, the Council of the Great City Schools, representing many of the country’s largest city school districts, said up to 275,000 teachers could be laid off in cities around the country without help.
Federal support is critical to stabilize K-12 education systems over the next 18 months, advocates say. Although Congress included about $14 billion in grants to states in the $2 trillion CARES Act it passed in March, advocates say much more funding is needed to help states facing unprecedented demands on schools, districts, staff, and students.
Several groups representing K-12 educators want Congress to approve $200 billion in dedicated K-12 funding that would include $175 billion in emergency education funding.
The latest stimulus bill now before the Senate -- the HEROES Act -- includes $90 billion for K-12 schools, $58 billion of which would be for local school districts.
But Republicans in the Senate have already publicly rejected that bill, and GOP lawmakers have expressed concern about the growing costs of federal coronavirus aid, according to EdWeek.
Disparity Gap Widens
Other factors can’t be discounted in the decision to reopen schools, including children’s access to meals, educational disparities, and the need to reduce burdens on parents who must go to work or are essential health care workers, the World Health Organization said at its briefing last month.
When public schools closed their doors in March and switched to online learning, that only deepened the digital divide for children from low-income families who can’t afford digital devices or internet access.
Poorer school districts in particular were unable to fill the gap. Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville serves free and reduced-price meals to 64,000 children, 62% of the district’s students, “but we were able to distribute only 20,000 Chromebooks,” says Blandford.
Humboldt Unified School District in northern Arizona has a large number of families who can’t afford internet access and who didn’t receive Chromebooks, says Amy Bowser, who teaches gifted children at two elementary schools in the district.
The participation rates in her Google classrooms reflected the digital divide. “Ninety percent of the students from the more affluent school participated in each Google classroom, compared to 15% of students from the poorer school,” says Bowser, who is also president of the Humboldt Education Association and a parent of two children at home.
She posted office hours, and the children with digital access could log in to Google Meet and ask her questions. The children without digital access could call her with questions, and she also reached out to them, with phone calls running into the evenings. “I have never worked harder in my 20 years of teaching,” Bowser says.
Another wrinkle: Children of parents working outside the home were also often expected to take care of their younger siblings, leaving little time for them to study, says Kubesch, the Cincinnati teacher.
Despite creating short instructional videos for her students, she also worked longer days because she was on the phone explaining things to her students individually or to parents who may not speak English. “In the classroom, if have a question, I can explain it to everyone at once. Now, when students have questions, I have to explain it one-on-one.”
The teachers created paper packets for students without digital access that contained instructional materials that parents could pick up or have mailed to them.
About 100,000 public and private schools provide free and reduced-price meals to low-income students during the school year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the nation’s School Lunch Program. But since schools shut down in March, educators have been concerned that low-income students may be going hungry if their parents or guardians can’t pick up the meals at local distribution sites.
Another vulnerable population in a pandemic is homeless children. Blandford estimates 6,000 children are homeless in Jefferson County Public Schools, or 10% of the students receiving free and reduced-price meals. “There may be no one to teach them how to wash their hands properly or take them to a clinic if they become sick.”
In addition, children with special needs should be in school to benefit from in-person therapy, says Domenech, the head of the Superintendents Association. “School districts should consider prioritizing in-person learning for children who need it the most. This can include children in K-third grades, for whom remote learning is less effective than for older children.”