Back to School 2020: Coronavirus Brings The Ultimate Test

The 2020 School Year Brings Unexpected Challenges

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Each year, as summer begins its slow descent into fall, students across the country reluctantly turn their attention back to school. Supplies are purchased, new backpacks, and lunchboxes are prepared for duty and first-day outfits are carefully selected.

But it’s 2020 and first-day outfits are likely to look a little different: they may include masks (coordinating, perhaps?) or may even be pajamas for kids who aren’t leaving home for the school day. This year, tests begin on day one and grades will appear via graphs and bell curves instead of in red pen at the top of a page.

The COVID-19 panic shuttered schools from coast to coast starting in mid-March and in an extraordinary turn, 48 states had closed for the academic year by early May. Schools scrambled to provide online resources and methods of instruction while teachers adapted quickly and creatively to stay connected to students.

A Most Unusual Year

But schools can’t stay closed indefinitely and as the new school year looms ahead, so do questions about how to reopen safely and prevent widespread coronavirus outbreaks. While children are contracting the virus in much lower numbers than adults, it’s impossible to be sure they aren’t asymptomatic carriers capable of infecting vulnerable individuals. And it’s essential to remember that schools are not only filled with children: every school employs dozens of adults, from teachers to cafeteria workers. According to US News & World Report, a whopping one-third of teachers nationwide are over age 50, putting them at a higher risk for complications from COVID.

Many areas of the country are seeing surges in COVID cases this month, just weeks ahead of normal start dates for schools. Even with regional variations, most kids are due back in classrooms sometime in August, with a few states starting after Labor Day. 

But how do kids return to class during a pandemic? And when?

President Donald Trump has weighed in; he wants students back at their desks this fall. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages schools to open, but acknowledges that additional funding and resources will be necessary. Most parents want to see kids back in school and most teachers are eager to return to their classrooms. But valid concerns from all sides result in extremely difficult decisions for leaders at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as parents everywhere.

Schools as Community Cornerstones

As any parent can attest, schools provide more than academic instruction. Kids learn to read, write and “rithmetic,” certainly; but they also learn how to interact in a group, make friends, work toward goals and persevere through challenges. If they haven’t learned at home, they may learn how to respect authority and use basic manners and social graces. At some point during their education, they’ll learn to deal with difficult teachers as well as cliques and other unfortunate manifestations of the adolescent social sphere. (Kids, of course, may also pick up a few unsavory words, habits or friends in the process, leading to teachable moments at home.)

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Schools provide meals for students in need, many of whom depend on the two meals a day at school to survive. Simply put, school is a safe haven for many children who lack one at home.

It is the children who often fall through the cracks who are likely to suffer most from missing school – and have likely already suffered from the four month hiatus. Many school systems have found ways to continue providing school meals to children in need, but kids with difficult home lives need much more than nutrition. Along with child abuse going unreported, experts and parents alike are concerned about mental health issues for children lacking social interaction with peers and/or being at home in less than ideal situations.

A Multi-Layered Decision

When it comes to returning to school this fall, these are all important considerations. There is no one size fits all solution, meaning state and local municipalities must make the bulk of the decisions relative to their districts.

Many colleges and universities have released their plans for returning to class; some will continue remote learning, others will allow students on campus and some will offer a hybrid approach. The basic outline could apply to secondary schools, but that’s where the similarities end; those schools, particularly public schools, must forge their own paths.

Most schools do have the same options as colleges, but implementation would be quite different: remote learning, in-person learning or a combination of the two. But within those options lie innumerable decisions, some of which are landing at the feet of parents and leaving many in a difficult position.

Many school systems are allowing parents to choose whether to send children back to school or to utilize online learning, but millions of parents simply have no choice: they need the childcare provided by schools so they can return to work. Parents who have transitioned to working at home may be physically present for online learning, but unable to dedicate time or attention during the workday.

So how can we get kids back to in-person learning safely?

Safety Measures

Most reopening models call for staff and students to wear masks in common areas at minimum, meaning even young children will be masked in hallways and on buses. Temperatures will be checked daily, lunch will likely be in classrooms and class changes will be minimized where possible. 

Extracurricular activities, including sports, are being scaled back or postponed entirely. (Kids who are learning remotely may not be able to participate at all in sports, fine arts or clubs.) Along with isolating sick children and stepping up disinfection measures, these new standards aim to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Of course, anyone who has ever set foot inside an elementary school knows it’s not quite that simple. How much instructional time will teachers spend monitoring mask usage? How often will kids’ masks end up on the floor or on a friend? How will kindergarteners social distance?

It will be an adjustment on all sides, but it’s also worth noting that kids are extraordinarily adaptable and flexible. In most cases, it will be harder for the adults in the building or even the ones not in the building; a quick perusal of social media shows a growing number of parents who are reluctant to send kids to school if masks are required. Social media also exposes the ugly side of the issue, with parents hurling insults at others with different plans.

Remote Options

Remote learning – not to be confused with traditional homeschooling – is an option in many states. Rather than the quickly-assembled online options offered last spring, remote learning would typically involve teachers dedicated to a specific grade or subject teaching live, with students watching at home on a device. Assignments would be submitted and graded digitally. Some schools will offer a hybrid approach – kids will attend in-person two days a week and learn remotely two days, with the fifth day used for meeting virtually with teachers or catching up on assignments.

The problem with remote learning or a hybrid model is that it disproportionately favors students with socioeconomic advantages. About 45 percent of American kids live in families who are considered low income, with about half of those below the federal poverty level. It stands to reason that families who struggle to keep food on the table may not have the resources to facilitate online learning for their kids.

And poverty is not exclusive to inner-city schools; nearly one-third of American schools are in rural areas, where abject poverty is a stark reality. Even wealthier rural areas may not have adequate infrastructure to support necessary technology. These issues underscore the importance of state and local control of decisions, but raise even more questions for parents.

Decisions and Outcomes 

Ultimately, parents will decide what’s best for their children – as it should be – but many parents will be in dire straits if schools do not open. To best serve all children, leaders must consider all potential situations and outcomes. It’s an unenviable position where there is simply not a solution that will please everyone or meet all needs; the greater good must be the driving force.

This will likely be the biggest test our schools and leaders have ever had to take and there is no clear right or wrong answer. Rather, the answer is in essay format and full grades won’t be given for several weeks. Let’s hope and pray we ace this test.

Rebecca Horvath
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