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Coronavirus

America’s schools are likely to stay shut for months — and reopening will bring significant changes, educators say

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With students languishing, the economy stagnating and working parents straining to turn their kitchen tables into classrooms, the nation’s public schools have been working to bring children back to their desks, lockers and study halls.

But despite President Donald Trump’s prediction that “I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up,” all but a few states have suspended in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, and some are preparing for the possibility of shutdowns or part-time schedules in the fall.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom of California raised the idea Tuesday that the next academic year could start as soon as July, to make up for the abbreviated spring term. But he cautioned that “if we pull back too quickly,” a fresh wave of the coronavirus could erupt.

Illinois officials have gone even further, warning that remote learning could continue indefinitely. “This may be the new normal even in the fall,” said Janice Jackson, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools.

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Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, who like Newsom has school-age children at home, is one of the few state leaders who has left open the prospect of schools reopening this spring — if several benchmarks are first met.

Whenever students do come back, classes are unlikely to look anything like the school days they remember. There may be staggered half-day classes or one-day-on, one-day-off schedules so desks can be spread out and buses can run half-empty.

Students can expect school equipment to be sterilized and meals to be served at their desks or in socially distanced lunchrooms. Masked teachers and temperature checks at school doorways may be common. Forget note-passing, study groups and recess. And if new outbreaks surface, virtual classes may abruptly start up again.

A few small, remote districts might try to reopen this spring, including the Shoshone School District in Lincoln County, Idaho, which serves 500 students. “We’re in the category of, ‘We don’t know,’ ” said Rob Waite, the superintendent. With small class sizes — the largest is 22 students — children could easily sit 6 feet apart. And on the bus, students who are not part of the same household could be assigned to sit in every other seat.

“The No. 1 most important question we’re trying to ask is, is anything we’re doing putting our students in danger?” Waite said.

Rows of school buses are parked in a fenced-off lot at First Student Inc. in the 4100 block of West Chicago Avenue Friday, April 17, 2020, in Chicago.

Officials are also aware that the economy cannot function normally until children have places to safely spend the day while their parents work. Trump’s nudge Monday, which came during a conversation with governors, occurred as oil prices slid and desperate small businesses crashed a federal website processing loan applications.

In Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp has aggressively pushed to revive the economy, officials said that a return to school would be an essential part of restoring a semblance of normalcy.

“I think it’s going to be a cornerstone,” said Matt Jones, chief of staff for the Georgia Department of Education. “There are certain elements of our society that are part of the fabric of who we are, and public education, and schooling, is just one of those things.”

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But Kemp has joined most governors in canceling in-person education through the academic year, which ends for most of Georgia’s public schools in mid-May. Jones said some districts were considering a restart of classes, at least in some limited form, in July for summer remedial programs. Others are hoping to return to normal in the fall.

Districts are also feeling the economic effect of the pandemic, anticipating huge budget shortfalls. And teachers are eager to return to the classroom, saying they miss the energy of real-world interaction with students.

Then there are the educational concerns. To make up for lost classroom time, schools may need to provide remedial instruction, additional special-education services and counseling, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Policy experts are also debating whether students who lag behind in key skills should be held back a grade or advanced with extra catch-up support.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, who announced this month that the city’s 1.1 million students would not return to classrooms until September, has said that many children will have to make up for months of lost learning despite the city’s shift to remote instruction.

But there is also a pervasive fear about what it would mean to bring students and teachers back together too quickly, given all that is unknown about how the virus spreads. Forcing educators to work at a perceived risk to their own health could be not only a public health danger but also a recipe for labor unrest in a heavily unionized sector.

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Janet Robinson, superintendent of Stratford Public Schools in Connecticut, said she was “horrified” to hear the president urging schools to open. Students in her district were among the first children in the state to test positive. Her staff, including teachers who are cancer survivors, are worried about being rushed back into the classroom.

“I saw the president say, the kids don’t get sick,” Robinson said. “Well, they’re not in there all by themselves. And I’d hate for a little kid to come into the building, get the virus and take it home. Then we’d start this thing all over again.”

In nations that have begun to reopen schools, like Denmark, classes and other activities are being held partially outdoors. In China, where the pandemic began, students have returned not only to masks, but also to glass desk dividers, teachers in protective suits and lunch tables that keep them a meter apart, and at which talking is forbidden. At one school, basketballs were being disinfected individually.

Some public health experts have suggested that younger children could be brought back before teenagers, who appear to be more susceptible to infection and are also more able to learn independently from home. Yet in parts of Germany, it has been older students who were welcomed back first, in part to take final exams from widely spaced desks.

Those other countries have made faster strides than the United States in testing and contact tracing, however, raising questions about whether it is wise for U.S. schools to forge ahead before the health system significantly advances its ability to combat the virus.

In Los Angeles, where the nation’s second-largest public school system serves some 700,000 students, the superintendent, Austin Beutner, on Monday said “robust” testing and tracing would have to be a prerequisite to reopening.

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“We closed school facilities on March 13 so our schools did not become a petri dish and cause the virus to spread in the communities we serve,” Beutner said. “That’s worked. We do not want to reverse that in a hasty return to schools.”

Lack of testing has remained an issue for states despite White House pledges to expand it. And the federal government has issued mixed guidance for districts since the outset of the pandemic, offering varying takes on the effectiveness of school closures.

In Trump’s three-phase reopening plan, the federal government recommended that schools reopen in “Phase 2,” in which states were urged to limit gatherings to 50 people when social distancing was not possible. Educators balked, noting that schools typically house hundreds of staff members and students.

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“In the same breath that the guidance highlights a path forward in opening schools, it establishes a scenario where every single school would be in direct conflict with another recommendation,” Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of a national association of school superintendents, said in a statement.

In most of the country, superintendents are still basing their plans on guidance from local and state health officials. More than 40 states have suspended in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, and districts are still focused on remote learning, virtual graduations and planning for summer and fall.

Melonie Hau, superintendent of Newcastle Public Schools in Oklahoma, said she had worried after seeing a handful of secretaries — allowed to work a few hours a week in the central office — gather around a desk to catch up on how their families were coping.

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“I’m concerned about bringing anyone back together in a building,” Hau said. “There’s just cultural things that come with being in the same room together, and to show appreciation for one another, that makes social distancing so hard in schools.”

Like many superintendents, Hau has been weighing what reopening will look like, including suggestions of alternating the days that students attend.

“It’s hard to imagine a schedule where you could make it work just halfway,” she said. “In my mind, we’re all in or we’re all out.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company


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