How to Open Schools Amid a Pandemic
As the coronavirus pandemic lingers, pressure is mounting for politicians and policymakers to come up with school reopening plans that are mindful of student, family, and staff needs. But with the next academic year drawing ever closer, plans for reopening remain uncertain at best.
For one thing, the number of coronavirus cases is on the rise in many states despite previous declines. As Education Dive's Naaz Modan opined, such upticks throw a serious wrench into efforts to get schools up and running again. Indeed, Modan noted, the now-familiar pattern of businesses reopening only to be shut down again when COVID-19 cases spike should serve as a cautionary tale for schools.
Here is a roundup of the concerns facing decision-makers as they weigh whether and how to reopen schools.
"Clearly not in total control"
As White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci stated at a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing in June, “We are clearly not in total control right now”— and although some evidence suggests children are less likely to become infected, infection rates among young people are rising. Compounding this issue is the fact that the disease's transmission is not yet fully understood, and neither is the degree to which children may spread the virus to teachers and other members of staff.
For as long as this state of affairs persists, crafting a reliable back-to-school plan seems like a tall order at best.
Vaccination timeline uncertainty
Although vaccines typically take at least a few years to become widely available, tremendous financial and pharmaceutical resources from across the globe are being directed toward developing a coronavirus vaccine. However, according to Dr. Fauci, several different vaccines will likely be required to contain the pandemic.
Of course, the emergence of a vaccine will usher in a new set of questions, such as: Will all students be required to get vaccinated? Will parents have the right to opt out on their children's behalf?
Additional funding requirements
Despite the uncertainty surrounding when a vaccine will be available, President Trump's demand that schools reopen physically in the fall has prompted education professionals to contemplate what this might look like.
Although the specifics have yet to be nailed down, the average district is expected to need millions in extra funding before it can resume in-person schooling in a manner consistent with safety recommendations put out by the Centers for Disease Control and similar entities. As National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia noted, many states and school districts will likely find it harder than ever to secure this additional capital in light of budget shortfalls arising from a decline in tax-based revenue amid shutdowns.
On the topic of the economy, many parents are unable to work for as long as their school-age children are kept home—and if they can't perform their professional duties, the economy suffers.
That said, some adults employed by K-12 schools are hardly eager to return to their jobs, despite state officials in New York City, Florida, Connecticut, and elsewhere indicating that classroom-based schooling must resume in the fall. California high-school teacher Harley Litzelman even called for educators to refuse to return until their areas have seen “no new cases of COVID-19 for at least 14 days.”
In a noteworthy opinion piece for The New York Times, columnist Michelle Goldberg captured many parents' desperation for more information about what a return to school might look like.
Parents understandably want their kids back in school—especially since organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics appear to be in favor of reopenings—but they also want the recommended health and safety guidelines to be enforced. Yet as New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told Goldberg, "Parents have no more information today about what schools will look like in the fall than they did last March."
The bottom line
Just as the science surrounding this pandemic continues to evolve, so will decisions about how and when schools should reopen—but with fall just around the corner, decision-makers are quickly running out of time.
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