When Will Schools Reopen?

Photo: Shalom Ormsby Images Inc/Getty Images

We’re committed to keeping our readers informed. 
We’ve removed our paywall from essential coronavirus news stories. Become a subscriber to support our journalists. Subscribe now.

After the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in March, the majority of schools went on to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of the academic year. But now that all 50 states have begun reopening, there’s increasing discussion regarding when it will be safe for schools to resume in-person classes. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that policy considerations prioritize “having students physically present in school,” and a number of schools have announced plans to reopen in the fall.

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.

When will schools reopen?

This spring, 48 states suspended in-person classes for the remainder of the academic year. Now, a small but growing number of states have announced that schools can reopen for in-person summer programs, including North Dakota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Many school districts across the country have announced plans to reopen in the fall, including New Jersey and Connecticut, which outlined plans for resuming in-person classes last week. Even so, the New York Times reports that many students will probably not return to school full-time, given that schools are likely to stagger schedules and offer a hybrid of in-person and remote learning in order to limit class sizes and comply with social-distancing recommendations from the CDC.

On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s schools will reopen in September. He said that each school will have a maximum number of students allowed inside at once, which in some cases may require staggered schedules. Students will also be required to wear masks, which will be provided to them for free.

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 had declined steadily for 14 days, include three phases. In the first phase, states could 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 continued 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.

For months, public health officials have warned that reopening too soon could lead to further outbreaks, and now, in many places, reopening efforts have coincided with surges in new coronavirus cases. In the past week, the U.S. has reported record numbers of new infections, which are currently increasing in 32 states.

President Trump has repeatedly pushed for schools to reopen, arguing that the virus doesn’t pose a threat to children. However, medical experts have urged caution. Testifying in front of the Senate in May, 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. Speaking on CNN more recently, Fauci continued to urge caution, though he also noted that keeping schools closed in the fall due to safety concerns might be “a bit of a reach.” Acknowledging that children tend to have mild cases of COVID-19, he said that he thought the approach to reopening would need to vary from place to place, depending on the local rate of infection. “I hesitate to make any broad statements about whether it is or is not quote ‘safe’ for kids to come back to school,” he said.

On June 25, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The AAP noted that evidence shows that children and adolescents are less likely to have severe cases of COVID-19, and that “policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families and the community by keeping children at home.”

The American Federation of Teachers has said that for schools to safely reopen, there needs to be better testing and tracking for the virus, and schools will need access to personal protective equipment. Acknowledging that adults who work in schools are at greater risk for infection and transmission of the virus, the AAP recommends that they maintain a physical distance of six feet from other people as much as possible.

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. In May, the CDC released a set of guidelines for schools reopening, which include spacing desks six 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.

In their recent statement, the AAP acknowledged that some of the CDC’s guidelines will be difficult, if not impossible, for schools to implement. For example, “in many school settings, 6 feet between students is not feasible without limiting the number of students.” In such cases, the AAP recommends that schools “weigh the benefits of strict adherence … with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.”

Some schools are discussing limiting 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.

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.

Education officials have said that social-distancing measures will be expensive for schools to implement — and they come at the same time that many school districts are seeing their budgets cut due to the pandemic. The American Federation of Teachers has estimated that schools will need $116.5 billion for additional staff and supplies to safely reopen. Meanwhile, the National Education Association has estimated that without federal aid, the education system will lose 1.9 million jobs.

This post has been updated.

When Will Schools Reopen?