What’s Going on With School Reopenings?

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 hit the U.S. in March, the majority of schools went on to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of the academic year. Now that the fall school year is upon us, approaches to reopening vary widely across the country, with some schools opting to resume in-person classes, others conducting all instruction remotely, and many schools implementing a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning. Already, many schools have seen outbreaks and been forced to close temporarily, and at least six teachers have died due to complications from COVID.

Here’s everything to know about school-reopening plans across the U.S.

When will schools reopen?

According to CNN, the vast majority of states have left school-reopening decisions up to school districts and local health officials. A few states have ordered schools to provide either part-time or full-time in-person instruction, including Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Iowa.

Schools in many states have now resumed in-person classes, though already there have been reports of schools closing temporarily after identifying positive cases. In Connecticut, where more than half of the state’s school districts have resumed full-time in-person instruction, at least 12 schools closed after teachers or students tested positive, and in New Jersey, at least six districts have said they will switch to remote-only instruction. In one county in Georgia, which resumed classes on August 3, more than 900 students and staff members were told to quarantine after potential exposure. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that a number of school districts in the Northeast are delaying reopening after discovering that high-school students had recently attended large parties.

Over the summer, Florida’s Department of Education issued an emergency order requiring all “brick-and-mortar schools” to open “at least five days per week for all students.” The order, which came as Florida continued to see record numbers of new coronavirus cases each day, has received pushback from teachers, who worry that the state is prioritizing economic recovery over the safety of students and staff. While teachers unions have sued to block the order, it remains in effect, and CNN reports that in the month since schools in the state began reopening, COVID cases among children under 18 have risen 26 percent.

In New York City, the country’s largest school district, the debate over reopening has been intense. Over the weekend, the city’s principals union called for the state to take over the city’s school-reopening plan after casting a no-confidence vote in Mayor Bill de Blasio. After the start date for in-person classes was delayed twice, hundreds of thousands of students will return to classrooms this week, with elementary schools opening on September 29 and middle and high schools on October 1; pre-K students and those with advanced special needs returned to the classroom last week.

Along with many districts across the country, New York City plans to reopen with a hybrid model, meaning that most students will only attend in person a few days a week in order to limit class sizes and comply with social-distancing recommendations from the CDC. Under the city’s plan, classrooms will likely have no more than 12 people present at a time, including teachers and aides. Students will be required to wear masks, which will be provided to them for free. Families also have the option to choose full-time remote learning, and nearly half of New York City families have opted out of in-person classes.

For the past several weeks, New York City has managed to keep its testing positivity rate around 1 percent, which public-health experts pointed to as a sign that it could be one of the few places in the country in a position to safely reopen schools. However, the city has seen a rise in cases over the past few days, and, on Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio announced that the daily positivity rate was 3.25 percent, an increase he called a “cause for real concern.” De Blasio has said that he will automatically shut down schools if the test positivity rate is above 3 percent over a seven-day average; on Tuesday, the seven-day average was 1.38 percent.

As infection rates have remained persistently high across the country, hundreds of districts have said that they plan to start the school year remotely, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Newark, Nashville, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Arlington, Virginia, and Oakland, California.

How will schools decide when to reopen?

President Trump has repeatedly pushed for schools to fully reopen and has threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that do not, though many have pointed out that his ability to actually do so is limited. In July, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, reiterated the president’s position, saying, “When he says open, he means open and full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.”

In his eagerness to get students back in school, Trump has previously argued 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 in June, 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.” A recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine came to a similar conclusion, recommending that, wherever possible, younger children and those with special needs should attend school in person.

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 — nearly one third of public schoolteachers are over 50 — the AAP recommends that they maintain a physical distance of six feet from other people as much as possible.

On July 10, after receiving pushback from teachers groups who argued that the health risks for adults who work in schools had not received adequate attention, the AAP released another statement with the nation’s two largest teachers unions, stating that “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgement of local experts,” and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.” The American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, has said it will support its members if they choose to strike in areas that reopen without adequate safety precautions.

How will schools follow social-distancing guidelines?

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.

As evidenced by a recent viral photo of Georgia students packed in a school hallway, some of the recommended social-distancing guidelines are difficult to implement. The AAP acknowledged this in its June 25 statement, saying, “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.” Massachusetts has said that schools can reopen with 3 feet of distance between children.

President Trump has denounced the CDC guidelines, calling them “very tough and expensive” as well as “impractical.” In late July, the CDC issued additional guidance more in line with the Trump administration’s position, including a statement titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall,” and new reporting from the New York Times reveals that White House officials pressured the agency to downplay the safety risks of sending children back to the classroom. Meanwhile, a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of parents would rather schools delay in-person classes due to the health risks. The numbers were even higher among people of color, who have been infected with and dying from the virus at disproportionate rates.

Public-health experts have said that 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 has 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 Council of Chief State School Officers estimates that schools will need as much as $245 billion for additional staff and supplies to safely reopen. The federal relief package passed in March allocated $13.5 billion for K-12 education — less than one percent of total stimulus funds — and negotiations on a new stimulus package have stalled in the senate. 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.

What’s Going on With School Reopenings?