The goalpost is moving again. But there's reason for hope.
As the impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the U.S., extended school closures are unavoidable for most communities. And when schools do reopen for the 2020-2021 school year, students and teachers will face a markedly different reality.
Governors in almost all states moved swiftly in March and April to close schools as a crucial link in the chain of social distancing practices that slow the transmission of the virus. The good news (and it is very good news) is that social distancing measures can help slow the rate of infection. The bad news is...well, take your pick: Learning gaps, loneliness and entrenched inequality, to say nothing of the increased burdens on teachers and on parents.
So when will schools reopen, and when will our kids go back to class?
President Trump plans to pressure governors to open schools in September
Coronavirus has parents and teachers stressing about what will happen in September. There are a lot of unknowns right now but President Trump made one thing clear this week: He says he wants to see children back in their desks come fall.
On July 7 President Trump explained his administration is "very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools." This followed a tweet one day earlier in which he stated schools must open in the fall.
This isn't the first time President Trump has publicly supported a September re-entry. On Memorial Day weekend President Trump tweeted "schools in our country should be opened ASAP."
For months polls have shown Americans are divided on the issue of when to send kids back to the classrooms. In May, POLITICO/Morning Consult surveyed nearly 2,000 voters and found that while a third of voters think schools and childcare centers should reopen, 41% don't like the idea of classes resuming in September and 44% think day cares should remain closed.
A subsequent Politico/Morning Consult poll in late June found 54% of respondents said they are either "somewhat uncomfortable" or "very uncomfortable" with schools reopening in September. Nearly 60% say they're uncomfortable with day care facilities reopening.
Meanwhile, Motherly's third annual State of Motherhood survey found that not having childcare is a major source of stress for moms during this pandemic. A third (33%) of moms feel the hardest thing their kids are dealing with is no longer socializing with their friends. They are also most concerned with their family's mental health (31%) and nearly a quarter (23%) feel the hardest thing for their kids is a lack of structure/daily routine.
Pediatricians, too, are worried about kids' mental health and routines, as well as the physical consequences of keeping kids out of school. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is calling for schools to re-open this fall, citing school closures as "plac[ing] children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality" because "lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had previously urged caution when it came to reopening schools earlier in the pandemic but says he is now in favor of reopening schools, citing unintended consequences like those highlighted by the AAP. According to Fauci, school reentry is possible, but areas with high rates of COVID-19 will need to take extra precautions, such as alternating schedules to keep class sizes down.
"We should try the best as possible to get the children back to school and the schools open for the simple reason that the secondary, unintended consequences of having children not being able to go to school has ripple effects for the family that might have deleterious effects that really override the so-called safety benefits," Fauci said on a livestream on July 7.
Despite all this, recent polls show a surprising number of parents may not send kids back to school at all. In the end, it is parents who will decide whether or not in-person school will resume, for their own kids at least, come September.
75% of NYC parents want kids back in school in September
On July 3 New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his city is preparing to reopening schools in September, but later the same day, Gov. Cuomo's office said that's not a decision a mayor would make.
According to de Blasio, 75% of parents surveyed want to send their kids back to school in September. This is a much higher number than a survey of parents in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, where only two thirds of parents definitely plan to send kids back in the fall.
New Jersey and Connecticut have announced plans to reopen schools in the fall, as have Alabama, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In California, schools are being directed to provide "in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible" during the 2020-2021 school year as per Bill AB-77.
CDC releases guidelines for reopening schools
Parents and kids alike are wondering what it will be like when schools reopen this fall, and states are beginning to make plans for how to reopen schools with an emphasis on health and safety.
As with other aspects of the nationwide reopening, deciding what guidelines schools should meet in order to reopen safely has been left largely up to states.
Adding to the confusion, there are three versions of government school-reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in circulation: A detailed set of recommendations that was part of a draft document the White House rejected as being too restrictive, a series of "decision trees" for schools that were officially released on May 14, and then, finally, edited, detailed guidelines based on the CDC's earlier-drafted recommendations, which were quietly released on May 17.
Here's what the CDC's official guidelines for school reopenings recommend.
- Ensure that reopening is in line with local and state health guidelines.
- Have practices and guidelines in place to protect students and staff who are especially at risk.
- Be prepared to screen students and staff for symptoms and exposure history upon arrival.
Recommended health and safety practices to put in place:
- Training staff and teachers to prevent transmission of the virus and to recognize signs of illness.
- Promoting hand washing and healthy hygiene practices
- "Intensifying" cleaning, disinfection and ventilation
- Employees wearing cloth masks, "as feasible"
- Maintaining social distancing by increasing spacing and creating small groups that don't intermix
The CDC decision tree for reopening schools also calls for ongoing monitoring and communication with parents and the local community.
In addition, the detailed CDC recommendations for schools include these suggestions for classrooms and students:
- Cloth face coverings for staff, teachers and older students
- Frequent hand-washing
- Posting signs and messages about the importance of safe hygiene practices
- Supplying the school with soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, no-touch trash cans and disinfecting wipes.
- Daily deep cleaning and disinfection, especially of high-touch areas
- Storing children's backpacks and other belongings separately
- Avoiding sharing of books, supplies or other learning materials
- Spacing desks 6 feet apart
- Turning desks to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other)
- Seating students on only one side of tables, spaced apart
- Spreading out children on buses
- Putting physical barriers and reminders in place, such as a plastic shield at the reception desk and floor markings showing safe distancing in halls, lines and other areas
- Grouping students and staff into small, consistent clusters to minimize exposure, and restricting mixing of groups
- Closing cafeterias and playgrounds
- Having children bring their own breakfasts and lunches as feasible, or serving individually plated meals in classrooms
- Virtual-only field trips and extracurricular activities
School districts may also put in place additional safety measures for reopening schools, such as alternating at-home and in-school instruction, updating the school calendar to include "catch-up" days and asking students and teachers to wear masks.
If there's a bright side to all this, it's that kids are natural learners who learn through play and exploration—and there's no shortage of cool stuff online to explore these days.
As a mom (and Motherly contributor) who has been teaching her kids at home during the complete nationwide lockdown in Italy wisely put it:
"You can take your child out of school, but nothing can take away your child's natural curiosity and their ability to learn in whatever environment they find themselves in."
[This post was originally published April 1. This developing story continues to be updated.]
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