By Emily Carty 

August 19, 2020

Update on School Reopenings:

With the school year already underway in parts of the country, we are seeing a range of responses to school reopening and instructional plans. The CDC suggests community and school reopening with social distancing when there is a 14-day downward trajectory of new Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, and when the percentage of positive Covid-19 tests is less than 20% and steadily decreasing. They also advise each school to have a detailed reopening and Covid-19 mitigation plan under supervision of the local public health department.

With the CDC essentially taking a back seat at enforcing these suggestions, states, local educational agencies and public health departments are in charge of creating school reopening guidelines or mandates based on the state or region’s Covid-19 cases and capacity to treat more patients. We are seeing that the majority of states allow the region (county, school district, etc.) to decide on a reopening plan based on state guidelines and local health regulations. This has resulted in many districts beginning the school year with either complete remote-learning or staggered, smaller classes at least part-time. A few states — Texas, Iowa, Missouri, and Florida — have taken it to the other extreme, with state-wide mandates for in-person instruction part- or full-time for all students.

Across the nation very different back-to-school plans are unfolding, despite each decision making body having to weigh the same aspects of reopening: funds, access to technology, benefits of school meals, parents who can’t stay at home for remote learning, or parents who don’t want their kids exposed to Covid. While some suburban, small, or low Covid-rate districts are reopening, it is notable that according to Education Week, “17 of the 20 largest school districts are choosing remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting over 4 million students.” New York City, the nation’s largest school district and earliest Covid hotspot, will not allow school reopening until the percentage of “positive tests…is less than 3% using a 7-day rolling average.” The California Department of Public Health on the other hand, allows schools to reopen when their “local health jurisdiction has not been on the county monitoring list for 14 days,” which requires decreasing positive tests and hospitalizations. Responding to educators’ request for concrete metrics, Kansas has declared schools can reopen full-time with distancing when positive tests in a 14-day period are less than 5% and when a given school has less than 3% absenteeism. In Georgia, many schools opted to reopen for in-person instruction, as distanced as possible, which backfired  on the second day of school when students and staff of a suburban school district tested positive and schools were forced to close again.

IS the country doing the right thing?

School reopening comes with a challenging set of decisions, especially with funding still up in the air for many school districts, hindering development of remote-learning or alternatives to in-person and full-sized classes. Lawmakers and national leaders have yet to agree on an updated stimulus package for schools, providing minimal support to educational leaders who are uncertain how far their budget will stretch in a pandemic. Nevertheless, school leaders are making decisions on many levels, and we  are seeing this play out differently in districts and schools across the country, none of which have had enough time or resources to completely perfect this unprecedented new era of learning. A report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that across 477 school districts the majority, especially in rural areas, are setting low expectations for teachers to instruct remotely or monitor student engagement and progress — all of which are needed more than ever to ensure students don’t fall behind.

The first week of school provided a few indications of how successful reopening has been: “sick outs” by two Arizona School districts; several schools in Indiana and Georgia closing just hours or days after reopening; clusters of K-12 and university students with positive Covid tests across the nation; and waves of teacher resignations over reopening policies. Clearly this is not the outcome of a thoughtful or successful reopening, these snapshots are telling that something isn’t working right. Moreover, the  the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teacher union, has recently voiced support of all teachers who want to strike in the wake of hasty reopening plans, anticipating a failure of reopening efforts.

Students are also experiencing the failures of reopening plans first-hand, either by being exposed to the virus or by lack of access to realistic remote-learning plans. The New York Times profiled several students during the first week of school — some were scared to go in-person, some were hit with the new distanced reality once they got to school, some reverted to distance learning, some tested positive for Covid. One mom, also a teacher, was skeptical about kids’ ability to contract Covid until her own daughter tested positive at school, prompting her to take her daughter out of school and re-consider the risks.

Several polls concerning parent feelings about school reopening plans show that the majority of parents surveyed have primarily negative feelings about reopening, and prefer to delay an in-person reopening, despite concerns regarding loss of income and remote-learning oversight. While there are mixed-feelings about the potential pathways of a successful school reopening, what is clear is flexibility and accommodation are key factors to the comfort level of families and school staff. In places that have gone remote, like North Carolina, Tucson, and Oakland, the process has been met with technical difficulties, lack of access to technology, and waning attention spans in Zoom classes without a parent present — something that many parents and schools are struggling to solve. Learning “pods” might be a step in the right direction for those who can afford it, but it puts families at risk of Covid and doesn’t help lower-income families. Forced school reopenings by states or districts hasn’t fared any better, reinforcing what many experts and professionals have argued all along: a hasty reopening is safe for no one and leads to increased Covid cases, more research and resources are needed to reopen schools safely and effectively.

There is certainly no right answer to school reopening plans that will accommodate every stakeholder. The schools that have chosen to reopen in-person while community Covid cases are still high are putting lives at risk and causing harm to communities. The local educational agencies and nonprofits using their resources to develop creative solutions to distanced or remote learning and delaying in-person learning for the majority of students are looking to be the safest path for most. Based on feedback and actions from teachers, administrators, students, and families, the right thing to do is to be careful, take the time to develop a reopening plan with local public health agencies, and ensure that schools and families have the necessary funds and supplies to support new safety measures or new day-time care centers for working parents. As the future is uncertain, flexibility, innovation, science, and alternative approaches to normal classroom learning are the key until we can get our students safely back in the classroom.


Resources for Remote Learning — The Emerson Collective has compiled an excellent, in-depth list of vetted resources for remote learning for students, families, educators, and administrators. From interactive sites, to videos, to toolkits, share with someone in-need or get to know what resources are out there to support you and your community.

Donors Choose — A platform that allows teachers and schools to request money or supplies for specific school-related purposes. Find a local class or project that you want to support, or filter “distance learning” to support students and teachers in navigating new systems of learning.

American Federation of Teachers — Support teachers and students by advocating for policies that will address funding, food security, technology access and more. Their site connects you with a fill-in template that sends emails to your local congress members.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance — A unified voice that supports policy, research, and collaboration to solve the digital divide in schools and beyond. Get involved with them or a local agency listed on their site to help donate, volunteer, or reach out to local government to demand support for internet access and technology for all students.

First Book — Provide in-need students and schools with books through donations and fundraisers for specific funds meant to reach those who need books most.


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