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Since the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in mid-March, the majority of schools have canceled in-person classes for the foreseeable future. According to Education Week, at least 124,000 out of an estimated 138,000 U.S. public and private schools have closed, affecting at least 55.1 million students.
As states have begun lifting stay-at-home orders and gradually reopening nonessential businesses, many are eager to know when students will be able to return to school. Last week, President Donald Trump once again pushed for schools to reopen, despite the fact that many public health experts and education officials have said that it’s still far too early for schools to safely resume in-person classes. Most governors seem to agree: According to CNN, officials in 48 states, as well as Washington, D.C., have ordered or recommended that schools remain closed for the rest of the school year.
Will it be safe for schools to reopen in the fall? And what will it look like when they do? Here’s what we know so far.
When will schools reopen?
Currently, 48 states have suspended in-person classes for the rest of the academic year.
Montana is one of the few states that has given schools the option to resume in-person classes sooner, saying that schools could reopen May 7 if they comply with social-distancing guidelines, including limiting class sizes and screening students for COVID-19 symptoms. However, Montana Public Radio reports that most schools in the state do not plan to reopen before the end of the school year. North Dakota governor Doug Burgum announced this week that schools can reopen beginning June 1 for summer programs, including child care, summer school classes, and college admissions testing.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom recently suggested that the next academic year could start as soon as July in order to make up for missed class time this spring. His remarks were met with mixed reactions from educators, and it’s not yet clear if this will happen, or what it would look like. Los Angeles has announced that the school year will start on August 18 as scheduled, but no decision has been made on whether classes will be held in person.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has said that it will take take a lot of work to reopen schools in September, but that is currently the city’s goal. Meanwhile, officials in other areas, including Illinois, have raised the possibility that remote learning could continue well into the fall.
How will schools decide when to reopen?
In mid-April, President Trump outlined a set of federal guidelines for states to begin gradually lifting social-distancing restrictions. The guidelines, which recommend that states not lift stay-at-home orders or travel restrictions until the number of coronavirus cases has declined steadily for 14 days, include three phases. In the first phase, states can begin to reopen some businesses, such as restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues, and places of worship, provided that they limit capacity and adhere to strict social-distancing protocols. Assuming the number of new coronavirus cases continues to decline for another two weeks, states could then begin phase two, which would include reopening schools.
However, some have pointed out a seeming contradiction in the guidelines, which, in phase two, state that schools can reopen but also recommend that people avoid gatherings of more than 50 people. Many schools have hundreds of students and employees, raising questions about how they will be able to operate in accordance with social-distancing mandates.
And even as many states have begun reopening businesses, there’s serious concern from public-health officials that easing restrictions too soon will lead to another spike in cases. Reporting from the New York Times shows that even though President Trump has encouraged states to reopen their economies, his administration is privately predicting that the worst of the outbreak is yet to come, and that the number of deaths will likely continue to rise steadily in the coming weeks. According to the Times, the fact that more than half of the states easing restrictions are still seeing an increase in new cases or in the rate of positive test results is additional cause for concern.
In response to Trump’s comments that states should “strongly consider” reopening schools before the end of the academic year, the American Federation of Teachers said that for schools to safely reopen, there needs to be better testing and tracking for the virus, and schools would need access to personal protective equipment. For the most part, children seem to have milder cases of the virus, but evidence suggests that they can still spread it, potentially to teachers, school staff, and the people they live with.
Testifying in front of the Senate on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that officials making decisions about school openings should not be “cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects” of COVID-19. Asked about the possibility that a vaccine could enable schools to safely reopen in the fall, Fauci said “Even at the top speed we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term.”
President Trump criticized Fauci’s testimony, and again pushed for schools to reopen, arguing that the virus doesn’t pose a threat to children. However, medical experts have urged caution, saying that it’s an oversimplification to assume that children are immune.
How will schools follow social-distancing guidelines?
Even once schools do resume in-person classes, things will look a lot different than what we’re used to. This week, the CDC released a set of guidelines for schools reopening, which include spacing desks 6 feet apart, having students eat lunch at their desks instead of the cafeteria, and closing playgrounds and other communal spaces where possible.
The CDC guidelines state that all staff members and children over age 2 should wear cloth masks throughout the school day, and emphasize the importance of daily disinfecting of high touch surfaces and limiting use of shared equipment. Additionally, they recommend screening students and staff for symptoms, and making plans for when people get sick, including short closings to allow for disinfecting.
Many of the CDC recommendations are intended to minimize the number of students and adults in close contact with each other. For example, they recommend keeping the same group of students and staff together — all day for younger students, and as much as possible for older students. They also suggest staggering school drop off times and having children sit one person per row on school buses.
Some schools are also discussing ways to limit class sizes, including staggering student schedules. One possibility is to have half of students attend class in the morning, and the other half attend in the afternoon, or operate on an every-other-day schedule. In this scenario, it’s possible that some form of distance learning would supplement in-class instruction. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said recently that while “Plan A” is to fully reopen the city’s schools in the fall, officials are also considering “other permutations,” which could include a staggered school day and hybrid of in-person and online learning.
Additionally, public-health experts have said that even once schools do reopen, they should plan for intermittent closures in the event of further outbreaks — in which case its likely that remote learning would continue. New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that he will partner with Bill Gates — who has a controversial record on education reform — to “reimagine education,” particularly the role of technology.
This post has been updated.