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Schools Reopening in the Covid-19 Pandemic: The State of Play for K-12

2020-08-17 19:13:45

This is the first installment of the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a new newsletter sent every Monday, Wednesday and Friday that brings you the latest developments on the seismic changes to education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get the briefing by email.

In a typical year, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s 50 million public schoolchildren have returned to their classrooms by the third week of August. But this year is anything but typical, with many of the nation’s largest districts delaying the start of school or choosing to open remotely as coronavirus cases surge through their communities.

One thing has become painfully clear: Individual districts have been largely left to chart their own paths, whether it’s a return to the classroom, remote learning or a mix of the two.

In the map above, our colleagues in Times Opinion looked at which U.S. counties might be able to safely open K-12 schools by examining where the virus is, and isn’t, under control. According to their analysis, areas in red should not reopen, those in orange and yellow can partially reopen, and those in green are ready to reopen with conditions, like avoiding high-risk activities, wearing masks and physical distancing. You can search for your area’s status here.

Some of those districts in red, however, have already reopened their doors to teachers and students. Schools across the South and Midwest are back in session, with some reporting outbreaks of Covid-19 that have forced them to temporarily move online or to quarantine large numbers of students and teachers.

But be careful about jumping to far-reaching conclusions: Many school outbreaks have taken place in viral hot spots like Georgia, in districts where class sizes have not been significantly reduced and mask wearing is optional, making it difficult to compare to regions like the Northeast, where the infection rate is currently lower and more stringent mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements will be in place for schools that reopen.

“The single most important thing is that there is no national reopening strategy,” Eliza Shapiro, who covers New York City education for The Times, told us. “We have an incredibly regional, fractured, scattershot approach to reopening that has no cohesion. Places like Florida and New York are different countries right now, in terms of the virus.”

Some politicians have tried to impose a more unified approach, with decidedly mixed results.

  • In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold up to $200 million in funding from the Hillsborough County School District, which covers Tampa and is one of the nation’s largest, if it did not reopen for in-person learning.

  • In Chicago, which had planned to open with a hybrid model, schools will now open remotely after opposition from parents and teachers. But many students have returned to in-person learning centers, which have been linked to few, if any, cases. Across the city, cases are low, and the infection rate remains relatively flat.

  • In New Jersey, Gov. Philip Murphy reversed his requirement for some form of in-person teaching following sustained opposition from the state’s teachers’ union.

  • At the federal level, President Trump tweeted a demand in July: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” But as Eliza has reported, his push seems to have backfired, hardening the view among some teachers and school officials that reopening would be unsafe.

These political and policy decisions are taking place as we are slowly learning more about the coronavirus and how it affects children.

“It’s kind of all over the place, but the only thing that people are really clear about is that most kids don’t get very sick,” Apoorva Mandavilli, a science reporter for The Times, told us. “Even though we think of kids as germ factories, they themselves are not the ones who are going to take the biggest hit.”

The bottom line: The problems with schooling during the coronavirus are systemic, but the angst is personal. Teachers and families are being forced to choose between imperfect options based on factors including health, socioeconomic status and tolerance for risk.

And it’s not just about paying the usual. Faced with extra expenses for screening and testing students for the virus, and for reconfiguring campus facilities for safety, some colleges and universities are asking students to pay additional coronavirus fees.

Other higher ed news:

Many first-year college students will start school from home, without all-night dorm room talks, the rush of a snappy seminar discussion or the sweaty euphoria of a first football game.

As a family, you can help ease their disappointment. Here are some suggestions for how to help build independence for students who are starting college from their childhood bedrooms.

“When students return to school, however they return to school, every one should have some kind of student newspaper,” Lara Bergen, an educator, wrote in an opinion piece for The 74 Million.

We agree. Student journalists, we’d love to hear from you about how you’re planning your first few weeks of coverage. What are the obstacles? What has surprised you? We may feature some responses in the coming days.


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