What schools may look like when they re­open

Ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers out­line po­ten­tial plans for fall

USA TODAY US Edition - - NATION’S HEALTH - Erin Richards

Imag­ine, for a mo­ment, Amer­i­can chil­dren re­turn­ing to school this fall.

The school week looks vastly dif­fer­ent, with most stu­dents at­tend­ing school two or three days a week and do­ing the rest of their learn­ing at home. At school, desks are spaced apart to dis­cour­age touch­ing. Some class­rooms ex­tend into un­used gym­na­si­ums, li­braries or art rooms – left va­cant while schools put on hold ac­tiv­i­ties that cram lots of chil­dren to­gether.

Ar­rival, dis­missal and re­cess hap­pen on stag­gered sched­ules and through spe­cific doors to pro­mote phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing. Stu­dents eat lunch at their desks. Those old enough to switch classes move with the same co­hort ev­ery day – or teach­ers move around while stu­dents stay put – to dis­cour­age min­gling with new groups.

Teach­ers and other ed­u­ca­tion staff at higher risk of con­tract­ing the virus con­tinue to teach from home, while younger or health­ier ed­u­ca­tors teach in-per­son. Every­one washes their hands. A lot. Fre­quently touched school sur­faces get wiped down. A lot.

That out­line of a po­ten­tial school day was drawn from in­ter­views with more than 20 ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers de­ter­min­ing what re­opened schools might look like come fall. In the ab­sence of a vaccine for COVID-19, they know so­cial dis­tanc­ing and hy­giene will be im­por­tant to limit spread­ing the virus. The ques­tion is how to im­ple­ment those mea­sures in schools usu­ally filled with crowded hall­ways, class sizes of more than 30 peo­ple and lunch­rooms of hun­dreds.

“The whole thing is over­whelm­ing,” said Dan Weis­berg, a for­mer dis­trict of­fi­cial and the head of TNTP, a non­profit for­merly known as The New Teacher Project that helps dis­tricts re­cruit and hire more ef­fec­tive teach­ers.

Be­yond blan­ket health rec­om­men­da­tions, schools will have to fig­ure out the rest by them­selves – with lit­tle new money to pay for the changes they need to make.

“This is where fed­eral dol­lars could help,” Weis­berg said. “This is where state guid­ance could help. This is where gal­va­niz­ing peo­ple be­hind the idea on how to plan for next year could help.”

In­stead, schools are get­ting con­flict­ing cues. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­port­edly said in a call with gov­er­nors Mon­day that they should “se­ri­ously con­sider” re­open­ing public schools be­fore the end of the aca­demic term. That’s af­ter 43 states and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., have al­ready or­dered or rec­om­mended schools be closed through the end of the school year, ac­cord­ing to Ed­u­ca­tion Week mag­a­zine.

In the ab­sence of a vaccine for COVID-19, they know so­cial dis­tanc­ing and hy­giene will be im­por­tant to limit spread­ing the virus.

A draft of new guid­ance from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion on re­open­ing the econ­omy rec­om­mends that schools place desks six feet apart, serve lunch in class­rooms and close play­grounds, ac­cord­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press.

The CDC’s guid­ance for schools so far has been vague. It sug­gested schools look to their lo­cal health of­fi­cials to make de­ci­sions on dis­missals, event can­cel­la­tions and other so­cial dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. The CDC never sug­gested out­right that schools should can­cel – gov­er­nors and school lead­ers called for that on their own.

‘Eco­nom­ics will drive choices’

Re­open­ing schools is crit­i­cal to fully bring back the econ­omy. More par­ents can work when their chil­dren are in school. Just as im­por­tant: Many kids aren’t learn­ing much at home. Those learn­ing the least are stu­dents who lack de­vices and in­ter­net ac­cess – many of whom were al­ready aca­dem­i­cally be­hind be­fore schools closed.

U.S. schools were not pre­pared for an overnight shift to vir­tual learn­ing, and the sit­u­a­tion has ex­ac­er­bated the in­equities be­tween stu­dents who have sup­port and re­sources at home and those who don’t.

But bring­ing kids back to school presents ma­jor wor­ries about health, not so much for chil­dren – who seem to be less at risk for get­ting sick – but for their teach­ers and par­ents. Pre­lim­i­nary re­search has shown that chil­dren can carry and trans­mit the virus with­out show­ing symp­toms them­selves.

Many school build­ings lack the space to keep chil­dren a rec­om­mended six feet apart. That’s why ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers fore­see a need to con­tinue vir­tual learn­ing, with kids at­tend­ing school in per­son on al­ter­nat­ing days or weeks.

And that’s only the start. Dis­tricts also must fig­ure out food ser­vice, es­pe­cially for the 52% of stu­dents who qual­ify for free- or re­duced-price lunches and de­pend on those meals. Schools must pro­vide enough qual­i­fied staff to teach stu­dents in smaller groups. They must pro­vide emo­tional sup­port to staff and stu­dents. And they need to de­velop mea­sures to help catch up chil­dren who have fallen the far­thest be­hind.

“There is go­ing to be at­tri­tion of teach­ers,” said Weis­berg. “And what­ever chal­lenges ex­ist are go­ing to be way worse if you’re not fully staffed.”

Then schools have to fig­ure out how to pay for it all.

“Eco­nom­ics will drive the choices dis­tricts make,” said Mar­guerite Roza, a pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Edunomics Lab at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity.

On Mon­day, su­per­in­ten­dents from 62 of the coun­try’s largest school dis­tricts called on Congress to pro­vide about $200 bil­lion more in ed­u­ca­tional sta­bi­liza­tion funds to help prop up bud­gets, buy more tech­nol­ogy for fam­i­lies and bet­ter serve low-in­come stu­dents and those with spe­cial needs.

In Cal­i­for­nia’s Long Beach Uni­fied School Dis­trict, with 84 schools and 10,000 em­ploy­ees, de­part­ments are re­duc­ing their bud­gets in an­tic­i­pa­tion of re­ceiv­ing less money from the state. Su­per­in­ten­dent Chris Stein­hauser, who signed the let­ter to Congress, said his dis­trict ex­pects to re­ceive around $10 mil­lion to $15 mil­lion in fed­eral stim­u­lus dol­lars from the CARES Act, but that’s about one-quar­ter of the fed­eral aid the dis­trict got in the first year of the last eco­nomic re­ces­sion.

“I would ar­gue the eco­nomic melt­down of to­day is go­ing to be far worse,” Stein­hauser said.

Other coun­tries are re­open­ing

U.S. lead­ers are watch­ing and learn­ing from other coun­tries that are re­open­ing their schools. Den­mark re­opened schools on April 15 for lower grades. Class­rooms held no more than 10 stu­dents each, and desks were placed more than six feet apart. In some cases, chil­dren move in co­horts that re­main the same day to day.

Lead­ers in Is­rael this week ten­ta­tively ap­proved send­ing stu­dents up to third grade back to school start­ing Sun­day, ac­cord­ing to The Times of Is­rael. Older stu­dents will con­tinue learn­ing from home. Classes will be kept small, and kinder­gart­ners will be split into groups that meet on dif­fer­ent days, ac­cord­ing to the plan, which is con­tin­gent on in­fec­tion rates stay­ing low.

Shang­hai and Bei­jing started bring­ing some stu­dents back this week. Ger­many has brought mid­dle and high school stu­dents back to com­plete ad­vance­ment ex­ams.

Es­to­nia plans to start bring­ing back chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties in mid-May, ac­cord­ing to Jake Bryant, a for­mer teacher and as­so­ciate part­ner at the global con­sul­tancy firm McKin­sey & Com­pany, which re­leased a re­port this week with ideas for schools to con­sider as they plan to re­open.

U.S. schools could con­sider bring­ing back vul­ner­a­ble stu­dents first for more one-on-one help, or sched­ul­ing more days of in-per­son in­struc­tion for them, Bryant said. Stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, or those whose fam­i­lies rely on schools for food or other as­sis­tance, could at­tend in-per­son three days a week, while more highly re­sourced stu­dents with ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy at home could at­tend two days a week.

He also said schools will have to get bet­ter at re­mote learn­ing, whether be­cause of a virus resur­gence, a need to quar­an­tine in­fected stu­dents or be­cause school days need to be split up to cre­ate more space in class­rooms.

“Stu­dents will face a steep hill to re­turn to grade level, as they likely have less learn­ing time un­til a vaccine is widely avail­able,” he added.

Some les­sons can be learned from schools in West Africa that re­opened in 2015 af­ter months of clo­sures to con­tain the Ebola virus out­break.

Deb­o­rah Malac, a U.S. am­bas­sador to Liberia at the time, said cities and coun­ties will prob­a­bly have to adopt a patch­work of solutions, based on their rates of lo­cal in­fec­tions.

Meal dis­tri­bu­tion

Schools have be­come a key re­source for fam­i­lies need­ing food as­sis­tance, which will likely con­tinue no mat­ter what school­ing sce­nario takes shape.

Break­fast and lunch in build­ings this fall will largely de­pend on how dis­tricts weather food and money short­ages now plagu­ing emer­gency feed­ing pro­grams that have pro­vided meals to stu­dents ever since schools closed.

Food ser­vice work­ers have had to re­think tra­di­tional break­fast be­cause of short­ages of sta­ples like milk, ac­cord­ing to Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokes­woman for the non­profit School Nu­tri­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

Katie Wil­son, CEO of the Ur­ban School Food Al­liance, says the 12 large school dis­tricts in her as­so­ci­a­tion are col­lec­tively los­ing $38.9 mil­lion a week by serv­ing food to their stu­dents dur­ing school clo­sures with­out the rev­enue they gen­er­ate from stu­dents who pay for meals.

With­out a fed­eral bailout, school food pro­grams will be forced to make cuts, mean­ing there may be fewer cafe­te­ria work­ers to pre­pare meals, Wil­son says.

ALEX GRIMM/GETTY IM­AGES

Staff tape off dis­tanced mark­ings dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for re­open­ing a tem­po­rar­ily closed el­e­men­tary school last week in Hep­pen­heim, Ger­many. Pre­cau­tions will ac­com­pany the re­sump­tion of classes there.

JAY JANNER/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Boys wash their hands at a char­ter school in Austin, Texas, on April 1.

ALEX GRIMM/GETTY IM­AGES

Staff in­stall a plex­i­glass pane on the teacher’s ta­ble April 21 dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for re­open­ing a school in Hep­pen­heim, Ger­many.

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