Whenever classes return to school buildings, they’re likely to be very different than the day students walked out so suddenly in March. No one yet knows what that future might look like for schools, but there are glimpses.
Student desks six feet apart. Temperatures taken at the door. Some students come on Mondays and Wednesdays, others on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Elementary students return to school first while middle and high schoolers learn at home.
School systems are only beginning to look at their options. Maryland school officials now have outlined a range of possibilities that all involve significant restructuring of the school day and week, with a combination of distance learning and in-person instruction.
If students must continue to wear masks and remain socially distant next September, an average classroom will have room for one-third or one-fourth of its usual student body. So school boards and administrators are now trying to think through what that means: Do you bring in a third of the students each day? Would a third of the students show up on Monday, the next third on Tuesday and so on?
Could you have shortened days that last just two and a half hours a day — or do the reverse and have longer than usual school days? How many students can fit on a bus sitting six feet apart?
“We would want every child in front of a teacher. So that is going to be the preferred mode,” said John Davis, chief of schools for Baltimore City schools.
Currently, the city school system is looking at students coming to school on a rotation that would have them in school one day and off the next. But Davis said the system is looking at other models, the developing research and talking to families.
“You have to start some place," Davis said. “We are starting with the A day, B day.”
The decisions, school officials and experts said, will be made based first on what is learned about the disease over the course of the next several months as well as what feedback they get from their communities. Schools may resume normally, or schools could continue remotely, but most educators say they think there’s more likely to be a blended approach.
Maryland educators may be able to learn what does work by looking toward Europe where children began taking the first steps back into their classrooms this month.
“At this point there are way, way more questions than answers,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County school system, as he ticked off a list of cascading decisions that must be made in the next several months.
There is some education research that points to what schools should prioritize.
“The younger the child the more learning during an academic year,” said David Steiner, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and a member of the Maryland State Board of Education. “It is true. Our youngest minds are incredibly receptive to new information.”
Given that elementary students are learning more quickly, that they have less ability than a high schooler to manipulate technology and that they also seem to get less sick with the virus, some educators have suggested they should go back first.
A state school reopening document guiding school systems includes a staggered return by grade level, with elementary students returning to buildings before middle and high school students. The plan also recommends bringing at-risk and low-performing students back to classrooms as soon as possible because they are more likely to fall further behind their peers during distance learning.
The plan doesn’t provide recommendations for school districts, but rather a checklist for school systems to consider. The plan suggests school systems could lengthen the school year, open schools early in the morning or have night classes in addition to staggered instruction days.
The state does call for the spring standardized tests that students would have taken if schools were not closed to be administered early next school year as a way to diagnose how much students may have fallen behind after six months with no in person instruction.
Many of the options included in the state plan would be a nightmare for parents who need to go back to work away from home and whose children aren’t old enough to stay by themselves. If students are only going to school one or two days a week then parents would need to find child care for the other days or stay home. The state plan says local school districts should consider the availability of child care in their communities.
“If a school system employs that A-B-C rotation and I am a parent of a first grader, so I can work on Monday but now what do I do about Tuesday and Wednesday?” Mosier asked.
Most educators agree that whatever form the next school year takes, it is unlikely to be the same as classes were last March.
“It is not about cramming them back into the same old school so we can do six months of teaching in one month,” said Tom Hatch, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University.
Instead, he believes the coronavirus offers advocates a way to suggest reforms they have long sought from schools.
If school schedules are going to be staggered, he said, then why not have high school students start later. Since being outside helps reduce the spread of the virus, schools could consider longer and more frequent recesses.
“How can we make schools much healthier places for kids?" Hatch said. “Let’s be creative and forward looking as much as possible in the re-imagining of school.”
Another consideration is the teaching force. About 18% of the nation’s teachers are 55 or older, said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which recently released a report on the issue. “This puts a squeeze on schools in a couple of different ways,” Bailey said.
Some teachers with pre-existing conditions or older teachers may not feel comfortable coming back into school buildings, and there’s already a teacher shortage in Maryland, where teacher colleges do not produce enough graduates each year to fill vacancies.
“For already strained pipelines, how do you find enough teachers to come into the classroom?" he said.
The teaching force could get assistance from recent college graduates without work. Steiner and others support a “Marshall Plan” where federal funds are used to pay college graduates to tutor children who have fallen behind in their learning.
Brian Perkins, who heads the Summer Principals Academy in New York City and is on the faculty at Columbia’s Teachers College, said he would like to see school districts focus some attention on the social and emotional state of children coming back to school. Educators have learned that children whose education was disrupted by hurricanes or other natural disasters have needed help adjusting to school when they return.
Teachers need to be trained in how to build strong relationships with their students before they launch into the content, Perkins said.
“We are going to need to pay attention to the social aspect of education as well," he said.
Anne Arundel’s Mosier believes schools will be changed forever by the pandemic in ways that cannot be imagined right now. For instance, he suggested, now that schools have spent months learning remotely, those tools might allow schools to eliminate the need for snow days.